Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Since Washington's Asia-Pacific policy has yet taken shape, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's first official visit to Japan, South Korea and China, which started on Wednesday, has drawn wide attention.
US President Donald Trump has not given any indication as to the direction of his Asia-Pacific policy since he took office. So far, no high officials appointed to the National Security Council are experts on Asia-Pacific affairs. Also, senior positions related to this area in government agencies like the State Department and the Department of Defense have not been filled.
Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for Asia-Pacific affairs, recently said that the Obama administration's "rebalance" strategy in the region is "officially dead," noting that the new administration "will have its own formulation," although there is nothing "really seen in detail" yet.
North Korea's nuclear issue has posed a significant and urgent challenge to the Trump administration's diplomacy. One of the most crucial tasks during Tillerson's Asia visit, therefore, is to strengthen and upgrade the US-Japan-South Korea alliance in response to the scorching nuclear issue.
The unprecedentedly large-scale US-South Korea joint exercise, which started earlier this month, has ratcheted up the tension on the Korean Peninsula. The US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, which just arrived in the West Pacific, also joined the drill.
Pieces of the US-built missile defense system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), have arrived in South Korea and the set-up is expected to be completed in late April at the earliest. In addition, the US has started deploying the MQ-1C Gray Eagles unmanned aircraft system to South Korea, which is capable of precise strikes on targets in North Korea.
Meanwhile, missile warning exercise led by the US, together with Japan and South Korea, kicked off again. A similar drill took place in January, during which Aegis-equipped destroyers from all sides detected and traced a mock hostile missile presumably fired by Pyongyang. Notably, the South Korean navy and Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces shared information through the US satellites.
Given the growing tension on the Korean Peninsula, Tillerson said, "the political and diplomatic efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to the point of denuclearization have failed," adding that "a new approach" is needed, after he met Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo. Tillerson's statement sounds like a threat to the North.
Senior White House officials are scrambling to review the US' North Korea policy. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said that the US is "considering every option that's on the table."
Apart from the military strikes, the Trump administration is poised to reinstate North Korea on the US list of "state sponsor of terrorism." North Korea was removed from the list upon the US-North Korea nuclear deal in 2008 under the Bush administration.
The political shift in South Korea, however, has disquieted the Trump administration in hope of grappling with the nuclear issue. The South will hold its presidential election on May 9 in the wake of the impeachment of Park Guen-hye.
Moon Jae-in, the leading candidate and a leftist politician, wants to bring "contact and ease" to his North Korea policy. But, Tillerson may deepen talks only with those South Korean politicians pursuing tough policy toward the North.
China is the last leg of Tillerson's Asia trip. The US and China are now discussing a possible summit in April between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Trump. Such a meeting is essential to the stability and development of the Sino-US relations.
Ahead of Tillerson's trip, Thornton said that the US pursues a "constructive" and "results-oriented" relationship with China. That means the US will demand China to exert more pressure on North Korea including cutting off its oil supplies.
Beijing is steadfast in opposing any wars on the Korean Peninsula, and has proposed new approaches to urge all relevant parties to return to the Six-Party Talks.
Tillerson's attitude toward China is not overall negative. He must be aware of how important the China-US economic relationship is given his past experience as CEO of ExxonMobil. After the February meeting with Tillerson in Germany, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that Tillerson is "a good listener and good communicator."
The US needs to respect China's interests and consider China's proposals if it is serious in resolving the North Korea nuclear issue. The THAAD deployment will absolutely jeopardize China's strategic deterrence. And the US arms sales to Taiwan are reportedly to increase under Trump. These tactical moves would never serve a "constructive" Sino-US relationship.
The author is a research fellow at the Charhar Institute and an adjunct fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. email@example.com Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion