DENVER – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent trip to Northeast Asia represented an important opportunity for Donald Trump’s administration to set out its strategy for that critical region. In particular, it was a chance to begin to address what could turn out to be the biggest international challenge the administration faces in the coming four years: halting North Korea’s unrelenting push for deliverable nuclear weapons, without sparking a conventional war on the Korean Peninsula.
It is difficult to say precisely what Tillerson achieved on his short visit. The taciturn statesman not only refused to bring reporters along on his plane (breaking with decades of precedent); he provided only brief public statements that do not paint a particularly detailed or comprehensive picture.
In South Korea, with the required trip to the demilitarized zone on his mind, Tillerson intoned that President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” with the North was over. In light of the “failed policies” of the past decades, he declared, “a different approach” would be needed. He concluded with a favorite statement of American policymakers when there seems no obvious way forward: “all options are on the table,” he said, implying that military action should also be considered.
Tillerson’s utterances on Korea immediately became grist for the op-ed mill. The “all options” remark was music to the ears of those who somehow believe that there is nothing the U.S. needs more than another war — and who are, no doubt, safely out of range of North Korean artillery. Finally, they report breathlessly, a senior U.S. policymaker is seeing things clearly and saying what needs to be said.
Or is he? Tillerson’s apparently hard-hitting approach was not much in evidence on his next stop: Beijing. Instead, Tillerson showed a great deal of patience with the Chinese, indicating a willingness to work with them on North Korea, even setting aside contentious issues to do so. From the sound of it, Tillerson may even have acquiesced to China’s oft-advocated great power framework for such cooperation. The Chinese were certainly pleased.
Tillerson’s short but ostensibly friendly visit to China has been praised by many for its contribution to a smooth transition of the bilateral relationship. But, on addressing the North Korea issue, the Trump administration is still falling short. With no singularly good option available, the administration must begin to pursue several policies simultaneously, not as inchoate elements, but as parts of a comprehensive overall strategy.
A crucial element of such a strategy is a reinforced military alliance with Japan and South Korea, including by delivering state-of-the art antiballistic missiles systems. Another is a more forthright approach to China, with the U.S. convincing the country’s leaders that such military cooperation is essential to a strong U.S.-China relationship.
In fact, China is already taking steps to intimidate South Korea over its decision to deploy a U.S. anti-missile system to defend itself against the North. China, which views that system as a threat to its own security, is threatening to hold the bilateral relationship hostage, including by downgrading trade ties.
Such moves are an old habit for the Chinese, and the U.S. must push them to break it, by making it clear that such bullying behavior will undermine China’s relationship with the U.S. At the same time, the U.S. must engage candidly with China on a longer-term vision for what possible Korean reunification would mean for both countries and their relations with South Korea.
Tillerson is right that the use of military force is an option that should be kept on the table. But the U.S. should also keep the door open to diplomatic talks with North Korea, not least to avoid the anti-American turn in South Korean public opinion that occurred when the George W. Bush administration, during its first term, failed to show any interest in negotiation.
But any talks need to build on what was previously discussed and agreed. North Korea unilaterally repudiated all of its obligations under agreements reached with five negotiating parties. Brushing that aside and starting from scratch in negotiations with North Korea — an approach that has been advocated by figures within the Chinese government, as well as some observers in the U.S. — would undermine the credibility of diplomatic contacts.
There is one option that should not be kept on the table: a quick agreement with the North to freeze its nuclear and missile testing in exchange for, say, the suspension of annual U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises. Proponents of this approach suggest that it could buy time for relevant countries to work out a more sustainable solution. But would it really impede the North’s drive for deliverable nuclear weapons? Given our lack of information about the country’s nuclear program, it is impossible to know.
What we can know is that a moratorium on U.S.-South Korea joint exercises would immediately undermine that critical alliance. What good is a military alliance without frequent contact, continuous integration, and up-to-date preparation?
Tillerson is right to discard the notion of maintaining strategic patience toward a country committed to developing nuclear weapons and the means to deploy them. But that is only the first step. He and his colleagues in the Trump administration must replace that policy with a coherent and comprehensive plan. And they must articulate their new policy in more than a couple of sentences.
Christopher R. Hill, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, and the author of “Outpost.” ©Project Syndicate, 2017