Bellwether

Rex's Road Show: New secretary of state has some Asian 'splainin' to do

Correspondent Rich Edson reports from the State Department

 

Talk about rough road trips. Rex Tillerson’s voyage next week to Japan, China and South Korea may be one of the most significant, and challenging, by an American diplomat — ever.

The new secretary of state must reassure Japan that President Trump is committed to keeping it safe. He needs to convince China, which Trump has demonized as a currency manipulator and trade cheat, that the United States wants to work cooperatively on common causes, like reining in North Korea’s nuclear program. And he is under enormous pressure to provide a sense of stability to South Korea, which just impeached its president and is quaking in the face of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s increasingly erratic behavior.

Tillerson, a seasoned businessman and deal-maker, prefers to work quietly, behind the scenes. But his every statement on this trip will be parsed, the length of every meeting judged. His body language, and that of his counterparts, will be subject to intense scrutiny.

Each country Tillerson will visit presents separate, interlocking challenges. Japan is nervously eyeing North Korea’s recent ballistic missile test launches, which were aimed at the Sea of Japan. Some Japanese politicians have suggested acquiring first-strike weaponry to pre-emptively ward off an attack.

Tillerson, a seasoned businessman and deal-maker, prefers to work quietly, behind the scenes. But his every statement on this trip will be parsed, the length of every meeting judged. His body language, and that of his counterparts, will be subject to intense scrutiny.

That prospect alarms South Korea, which has a long memory that includes Japan’s occupation of Korea more than a century ago. Put simply: South Korea distrusts a more militarized Japan. Its mood is further darkened by the removal of its president, on charges she took bribes.

China reacted sharply this week to the U.S. shipment of Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile batteries to South Korea. Beijing warned — somewhat disingenuously — that increasing South Korea’s defense capability would destabilize the region, and it hinted at unspecified retaliation.

Most of the Asian nations’ insecurity stems from the brazen and dangerously unpredictable actions of North Korea’s Krazy Kim. In the past few months alone, the 33-year-old authorized the ballistic missile test, which North Korea said was intended to prepare for an attack on U.S. military bases in Japan. He almost certainly sanctioned the fatal poisoning of his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, whom he perceived as a rival, at an airport in Malaysia. And, as the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, the North Korean regime tried to sell lithium-6, which, when sufficiently enriched, can be used to create a nuclear bomb.

Dealing with Kim is just the thorniest of Tillerson’s tasks. China’s construction and militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea has unnerved its neighbors. Its alleged use of cyber-espionage is also a sore point. Chinese support for North Korea, both economic and diplomatic, allows Kim to continue to flout international law.

There are also economic issues to be resolved. America racked up a nearly $350 billion trade deficit with China last year. Beijing holds more than $1 trillion in U.S. treasury bonds, giving it some negotiating leverage in any Trump-inspired trade war. How Tillerson handles those topics may shape the future of U.S.-China relations for the duration of Trump’s presidency.

The U.S. also runs deficits with Japan and South Korea, but, unlike China, those countries are allies. However, Trump’s scrapping of American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, of which Japan is a signatory, could give China even more influence in the region than it already has.

So, Tillerson’s plate is full even before he gets airborne. He can only hope that the unhinged North Korean despot doesn’t spring any new provocations while he tries to sow diplomacy on Asian soil.

John Moody is Executive Vice President, Executive Editor for Fox News. A former Rome bureau chief for Time magazine, he is the author of four books including "Pope John Paul II : Biography."