Tillerson to deepen alliance with Japan, South Korea

By Chen Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2017/3/16 20:08:39

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has set out on his first official trip to Japan, South Korea and China from March 15 to 19. Given Seoul's power vacuum after the presidential impeachment of Park Geun-hye and the growing tension in the Korean Peninsula, Tillerson is expected to cement the US-Japan-South Korea alliance and talk with Seoul and Tokyo on North Korea's nuclear crisis during his visit to the two allies. As for China, Tillerson will prepare for the summit meeting between the leaders of the two countries.

In February, US Defense Secretary James Mattis visited South Korea and Japan. US Vice President Mike Pence will also visit Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Australia in mid-April.

In the span of three months, Washington's top-level officials have toured and are planning to tour Japan and South Korea. Such attention to the region indicates that Northeast Asian affairs are of greater importance to the Trump administration than Obama's.

Despite that Trump's Asia-Pacific policy hasn't been fully shaped, comments made by the US cabinet members suggested that Trump's administration will continue to contain China.

Both Mattis and Tillerson have assured Japanese officials that the US-Japan security treaty is applied to the Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu Islands in China. At the US-Japan summit meeting in early February, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US President Donald Trump reconciled in the joint declaration that the US-Japan alliance is "a cornerstone of peace, prosperity and freedom in the Asia-Pacific area," and the US and Japan will deepen cooperation to "safeguard the peace and stability of the East China Sea."

If Mattis' Asia visit was to conciliate US allies, Tillerson's is to deepen the trilateral relationship. Within the relationship, the US-Japan alliance, after Abe reconfirmed with Trump, is going strong while the US-South Korea alliance may be on the rocks.

After Park's impeachment, South Korea is going to elect a new president. Among all presidential candidates, Moon Jae-in, the leader of the Minjoo Party who is leading in the poll, advocates for negotiating solutions on the nuclear crisis. Moon's attitude on the US deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is, however, not that firm.

Therefore, if Moon is elected, Seoul's North Korea policy may go against the US' objectives, provided that the decision to halt the THAAD deployment can even be possible, which would no doubt undermine the alliance.

Moreover, Moon has emphasized that Japan must shoulder legal responsibility in the "comfort women" issue and make an official apology to South Korea. His stance on disputed lands of Dokdo, or Takeshima in Japan, is tough as he declared sovereignty on his visit there in July last year.

As the Japanese ambassador to South Korea has not returned to Seoul, since he was recalled by the Japanese government over the "comfort women" statue row, Abe's administration cannot connect with Moon's team, which adds more uncertainties to the Japan-South Korea relations.

Under such circumstances, it is hard to say whether there will be a favorable turn for the bilateral relationship if Moon wins the election.

Tillerson will, hence, aid the development of Japan-South Korea ties in order to stabilize the trilateral relationship. After all, Washington needs a Japan-South Korea knot in dealing with either China or North Korea.

In addition, North Korea's nuclear issue will be a top priority on Tillerson's agenda as well.

On the one hand, Tillerson will ask Japan and South Korea to strengthen their defense capacity in response to nuclear menace from North Korea. By all means, he will urge South Korea to quickly finish the THAAD installation, and push Japan to increase its military budget and upgrade arms in show of Japan's responsibility for regional prosperity and stability.

On the other hand, in spite of the differences between the US and China in solving the nuclear crisis, Tillerson will discuss this issue with Beijing in a bid to reach common ground for further negotiation. Otherwise, Tillerson may woo Seoul and Tokyo to pressure Beijing.

Aside from the abovementioned issues, Tillerson will cover some routine topics like freedom of navigation operations and China's moves in the South China Sea. But these can be bargaining chips by the Trump administration during future US-China trade talks.

The win-win cooperation and avoidance of confrontation have been widely recognized in the two countries. Meanwhile, China should be steadfast on is-sues concerning its core interests.

The author is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Sociology at Toyo University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion.


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