Adult Supervision: Secretary Tillerson in Asia



Secretary of State Tillerson is proving a man of few words. The result is that there is less to parse, but what is on record is more pointed than the lengthy disquisitions of his predecessor. From the perspective of this blog, there were six components to his Asia trip, and each requires careful reading: the assurance piece; “20 years of failure”; sanctions; military options; negotiations; and the all-important audience of one, Xi Jinping.

The Assurance Piece. The American news cycle is so radically disruptive these days that memories run short. It is easy to forget that the administration has substantial assurance work to do in Asia. Assurance of allies is just the flip-side of the credibility of those alliances and thus their deterrent effect. Such signals were clearly a subtext of the Tillerson trip as they were of Secretary Mattis last month. In his prepared comments with Prime Minister Abe, interim-President Hwang and foreign ministers Fumio Kushida and Yun Byung-se, Tillerson was at pains to underscore the alliances (“enduring,” “unwavering,” “iron clad,” “lynchpins”) while sidestepping contentious issues such as bilateral economic relations, which have curiously faded from the scene. Among the commitments were a restatement of the fact that Article V of the security treaty with Japan covers the Senkakus, an allusion to strengthening trilateral cooperation between Japan, Korea and the United States, and a restatement of the defensive logic of THAAD.

There is concern that the latter could be a point of contention not only with Beijing but with Seoul. Interim-President Hwang and Foreign Minister Yun were clearly doing their level best to lock THAAD in. As the Democratic Party candidates staged a debate among their top four contenders, front-runner Moon Jae-in tried to square the circle between open opponents to THAAD (Seongnam mayor Lee Jae-myung), maintaining the commitment and figuring out a way to placate Chinese opposition.

However, it is important to note that Tillerson was also doing his best to assure China that the US had broadly cooperative intent. Face is important. While Tillerson no doubt delivered tough messages in private, the public optics put much more emphasis on cooperation. In a near-Chinese formulation in his press conference with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Tillerson characterized the relationship between China and the United States as guided by “nonconflict, nonconfrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” To say that contrasts with the president’s formulations is an understatement.

Following Secretary Mattis, Rex Tillerson was doing adult supervision in Asia. But is the strategy on offer really that different from strategic patience? 

The “20 years of failure” piece. One of the headlines from the trip was Tillerson’s comments that US North Korea policy has seen 20 years of failure. He will probably live to rue the day. Such a timeline clearly encompasses all of the Bush as well as Obama administrations and extends almost all the way back to the Agreed Framework and second Clinton administration as well. He declared that strategic patience was over, but saying it does not make it true. Whatever you think of it, strategic patience is just one variant of the two-pronged approach first outlined most clearly by Bill Perry: hold open a door to negotiations while simultaneously use pressure to get North Korea back to the table. Despite the uproar over his comments about military action, that strategy was basically what Tillerson had on offer.

The Sanctions Piece. What could a Trump administration do to up the ante? There are basically two instruments: sanctions and some use of the military. On sanctions, Marc Noland and I have long pointed out that there is ambiguity in saying “sanctions don’t work.” Some have the mistaken view that the nature of the North Korean regime makes it utterly invulnerable to outside pressure. This claim is dubious; the economy is clearly more open and thus could well experience the kind of stresses that Iran did in the wake of coordinated sanctions. The second meaning of the “sanctions don’t work” trope is that the Chinese are not going to impose adequate sanctions to really get the North Koreans to move. As a result, the sanctions enforcement game is kabuki theater.

The kabuki is about to get called out, but with some muscle behind the effort. In his presser with Minister Yun in Seoul, Tillerson said that the US would be “calling upon China to fully implement sanctions, as well, in compliance with the UN Security Council resolution that it voted for.” Translation: the US does not believe that China is in fact fully enforcing sanctions to which it has already committed. Tillerson flubbed a question on oil: there is no authority for the US to demand that China, Russia or any other supplier cut off North Korean oil supplies. But the evidence is piling up, most recently in the Panel of Experts report and the Hongxiang and ZTE cases that China may not only be allowing unsanctioned commercial trade but may be turning a blind eye to sanctioned trade, including with designated entities. China will be hard pressed to object if the US undertakes secondary sanctions against Chinese firms that are in breach of UN Security Council commitments that it claims to meticulously enforce.

The Military Piece. That “all options are on the table” got the most breathy press coverage. The expression is a cliché. It is also a true statement that may not be indicative of anything. Any new president should be apprised of the full range of military actions that are available—diplomatic, economic, military—if only to be apprised of their feasibility and costs. Max Fisher at the New York Times walks through why pre-emption carries obvious risks.

Tillerson made his remarks about military responses carefully conditional. First, “if North Korea takes actions that threaten the South Korean forces or our own forces, then that would be met with an appropriate response.” And second, “if they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table.” This was a classic use of strategic ambiguity, with its well-known advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, the statement was clearly designed to generate some uncertainty in Beijing and Pyongyang. Given North Korea’s testing trajectory, we could determine at any time that these thresholds have been crossed. Yet at the same time, such statements run classic red-line risks. If the North Koreans do “escalate” by testing new capabilities—either nuclear or missile—and the US does not respond, then it will be read as implying that those developments are acceptable.

What Tillerson did not do was to tip the US hand on a variety of military options that fall short of outright pre-emption. Fisher’s catalogue at the Times hardly exhausts the options. These range from intercepting a missile over international waters or in Korea’s or Japan’s EEZ, troop movements and exercises, or even more forward actions such as bomber overflights of North Korea (suggested to me by David Welch at Waterloo), visible SLBM probes or cyber means. We can also move military assets; last week, the military announced it was assigning a Gray Eagle drone company to the 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division. 

The negotiations piece. On negotiations, the message appears blunt: no negotiations. But a closer reading suggests more nuance and even continuity with the strategic patience approach. First, it is clear that the Trump administration is not receptive to the core of the Chinese proposal for an interim freeze as a way to get the diplomatic ball rolling (“As to the suggestion from the Chinese Government that we should stand down our joint military operations in exchange for engaging in talks, we do not believe the conditions are right to engage in any talks at this time.”) And it is also clear that the US does not see a quick return to either Six or Five Party Talks, the latter being an interesting insert given that they were seen as a potentially desirable way of coordinating among all the parties without North Korea (“So, again, conditions must change before there is any scope for talks to resume, whether they be five-party or six-party.”) But note that in each case, the Secretary said only that conditions were not ripe, not that they were ruled out. Clearly, this was an important if unstated component of the China leg of the visit and of the Mar-a-Lago summit: what would be an acceptable negotiating format and are the Chinese willing and able to get the North Koreans to come?

But Tillerson actually went further. In an under-appreciated statement, he said that “North Korea and its people need not fear the United States or their neighbors in the region who seek only to live in peace with North Korea.” At another point he made reference to seeking an economically prosperous Northeast Asia. These are important claims, designed to reassure the Chinese that the US does not in fact seek regime change.

The China Piece. Tillerson’s entire visit ultimately has an audience of one: Xi Jinping. Trump’s tweet that China has done little to solve the North Korea problem is a little churlish; after all, Beijing did put muscle behind the Six Party Talks despite their ultimate demise and has recently taken a few steps such as the coal ban that could have material effect. But Trump’s tweet is not altogether wrong. Tillerson and Trump are asking not what China has done but whether they have done anything which has material effect. Effort doesn’t count in international politics. Tillerson struck the right note by emphasizing a “results oriented” relationship with China on the North Korean issue.

In the end, the entire trip was nothing more than an effort to set the stage for the Mar-a-Lago summit, where I suspect some kind of agreement will be reached on the issue one way or the other. If not, then this president will have to decide how to live with his tough talk. How long before Tillerson has the additional job of lowering expectations?

Correction: Lee Jae-myung was previously identified incorrectly as the mayor of Seoul. He is the major of Seongnam.

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