Commentary / Japan

Can Tillerson tackle a tense East Asia?

by Stephen R. Nagy

North Korea’s missile tests on March 6 and its march toward nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles has raised anxieties in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. These provocative tests followed the assassination in Malaysia of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam in February using the deadly nerve agent VX and the disclosure that the North tried to sell nuclear material to international buyers last year.

The VX killing and attempt to engage in nuclear-grade weapons proliferation are a salient demonstration that North Korea is not only a regional threat to stability but also a global threat along conventional and unconventional lines.

It is against this backdrop that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing this week. His visit is meant to reassure allies in the face of a growingly provocative North Korea while at the same time laying the ground work for a tete-a-tete between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump later in the year to recalibrate U.S.-China relations.

Japan and South Korea are arguably the most vulnerable to the North Korean conventional and non-conventional military threats. The two countries will demand U.S. resolve, commitment and a surgeon’s precision and attention to detail when “getting tough” with Pyongyang. This will not be easy as the strategic patience approach under the Obama administration, and the pragmatic engagement coupled with credible deterrence under the Bush administration, both failed to stop the development of the North’s nuclear, chemical and missile technologies.

The acceleration of the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea and potential installation in Japan may allay some security concerns in Seoul and Tokyo, but it will not be a silver bullet tackling North Korean brinksmanship. This failing partly explains why leaders in Seoul and Tokyo are considering acquiring preemptive strike capabilities.

The conundrum for Tillerson is how to counter the North’s highly destabilizing instigations to satisfy Seoul and Tokyo’s concerns without alarming an already hyper-suspicious China about a perceived U.S. containment strategy. Many in China believe the U.S. is using North Korea as a scapegoat for the installation of the THAAD system — a system that has the potential to make China’s nuclear deterrence capabilities redundant.

Tokyo has an enviable position compared to South Korea in receiving Tillerson. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proactive reach out to the newly elected Trump in November and recent visit to Washington last month has strengthened U.S.-Japan ties without dramatically changing Beijing’s security calculus vis-a-vis Japan or the Japan-U.S. security alliance. As a result, Tillerson’s mission in Japan is to stress the centrality of the alliance for peace and security in the region, to reiterate support for Article 5 in which the U.S. is compelled to come to Japan’s defense, and to offer support to Japan in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat through the provision of technologies such as THAAD.

The recent delivery of THAAD antimissile systems to Seoul, on the other hand, has already provoked the ire of Beijing as they are seen to tangentially and negatively weaken Beijing’s security. Beijing believes that the THAAD system’s radar capabilities extend into Northeastern China, enabling the U.S. to approximate the location and number of nuclear and non-nuclear missiles with the effect of eliminating their deterrence capabilities.

In reaction to the recent delivery, Beijing has made it unequivocally clear at the ministerial level and military level that the THAAD installment will result in a military escalation. Beijing has already stepped up its pressure on South Korean companies through banning tour groups, canceling cultural performances and threatening South Korean blue chip firms such as Lotte.

Tillerson’s visit to Seoul is further complicated by the recent impeachment of President Park Geun-hye and the potential election of Moon Jae-in, who promotes a softer stance on North Korea and is not supportive of the THAAD installment. As in Tokyo, the secretary will need to stress the centrality of U.S.’ commitment to South Korea’s defense while at the same time recognizing that his country’s hard-line approach on North Korea complicates South Korea-China relations and potentially instigates more belligerence by the North.

The economic dimension of South Korea-China relations is an area that Tillerson will have to be particularly cognisant and supporting of if he is to ensure that the THAAD installment does go ahead as planned.

The third leg of Tillerson’s visit to East Asia will be to meet Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to start the process of arranging a bilateral meeting between Trump and Xi. With different views on how to deal with North Korea, the THAAD installment, a consolidated Japan-U.S. partnership in the region and Trump vowing to get tough on China, the conditions seem unfavorable for a more cooperative, proactive stance on North Korea and for developing win-win Sino-U.S. relations in the short to medium term.

Tillerson’s task will be to ensure that the U.S. under Trump acknowledges China’s core interests of state sovereignty; national security; territorial integrity; national reunification; China’s political system established by the constitution and secured by overall social stability; and basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development.

For Beijing, these are the minimum requirements for moving forward in terms of bilateral relations.

That being said, the secretary’s mission to East Asia and China in particular is to recalibrate U.S.-China relations to be more representative of the evolution of the economic, political and security changes in their relationship since normalization. This recalibration will no doubt entail pushing back against China’s claims in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and a provocative and highly destabilizing North Korean regime. All of these would be welcome in Seoul and Tokyo.

At the same time, assertive demands on what China deems its core interests, especially in the year when the Communist Party’s new Standing Committee will be appointed, risks increasing tensions in an already downward spiraling relationship that would have negative bilateral consequences.

These increased tensions could further embolden North Korea or see destabilizing actions in the East China Sea and South China Sea as proxies for U.S.-China problems.

Stephen R. Nagy is a senior associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies at International Christian University. This article was first published in Policyforum.net.