Rex Tillerson concluded his first trip to the Asia-Pacific as US Secretary of State, at the weekend, after stop-offs in Japan, South Korea and China. North Korea topped the agenda given continuing provocations from the regime, and Tillerson warned on Friday that Washington’s policy of strategic patience is now over and “all options”, including military action, are on the table.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Li warned before the trip, in unusually blunt language, that Washington and Pyongyang are on a “head-on-collision” course. Beijing’s concern here is not just irresponsibility from North Korea, which launched a further four ballistic missiles earlier this month, but what it asserts is the United States fanning the flames by beginning last week its deployment of the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defence missile system (THAAD) in South Korea which holds a snap presidential election by May 9 after the constitutional court upheld a parliamentary impeachment vote against Park Geun-hye.
Beijing vehemently opposes the system which it believes could be used for US espionage on China’s own activities, as much as for targeting missiles from North Korea. Wang has therefore called for Seoul and Washington to “cease and desist” THAAD deployment.
The fact that the security tensions on the Korean peninsula have no easy resolution has been found out by consecutive US administrations which have grappled with the challenge of responding to not just missile launches by Pyongyang, but also its nuclear tests. Tillerson acknowledged on Thursday that “political and diplomatic efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to the point of denuclearisation have failed”. Last year, the Obama team talked tough with Asian allies on unilateral and multilateral sanctions, but found China reluctant to take comprehensive, sweeping measures against its erstwhile ally. This dialogue culminated in November with the UN eventually voting to tighten sanctions in response to Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear test.
The reason why China and the US differed last year over the scope and severity of international sanctions is that, concerned as Beijing is about Pyongyang’s behaviour, it does not want to push the regime so hard that it becomes significantly destabilised. From the vantage point of Chinese officials, this risks North Korea behaving even more unpredictably, and/ or the outside possibility of the implosion of the regime which would not be in Beijing’s interests, not least as it could lead to instability on the North Korea-China border, and ultimately the potential emergence of a pro-US successor nation China is also concerned that the Trump team might even be thinking, seriously, about a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. The risks of this are big, and this is one reason why Wang asserted earlier this month that “China’s priority now is to flash the red light and apply the break to both [the US and North Korean] trains” to avoid a collision.
Putting ties on a move even keel
In China, a second key element of Tillerson’s trip was focused on trying to put bilateral relations on a more even keel after the early disruptions of the Trump presidency. The US secretary of state also sought to finalise the agenda with his Chinese hosts for a landmark meeting between President Xi Jinping and Donald Trump that is tentatively scheduled for next month.
It is not just Trump, but also Tillerson himself that have slammed Beijing in recent weeks. For instance, the US Secretary of State said in January that Beijing should “not be allowed access” to its new, artificial islands in the South China Sea which was particularly sensitive for Beijing given its high animus toward US sea and air manoeuvres near its borders.
Underlying Trump’s own hawkish sentiment appears to be a conviction that China represents the primary threat to US interests globally. Yet, he has also acknowledged that Beijing can also play a potentially constructive role in key policy areas, including North Korea.
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In this context, the dealmaker in Trump’s political persona has surfaced with his comments that “everything is under negotiation” with Beijing, and it appears that he may ultimately be looking for a grand bargain extending beyond the security arena to economics too. Here, one specific measure he wants to see is China floating the yuan. Last month, he called Beijing the “grand champions of currency manipulation” and asserts that the country is keeping its exchange rate artificially low in order to secure an export advantage.
While this US rhetoric indicates that tensions could rise further between Beijing and Washington in coming months, it should be remembered that the Obama administration left bilateral ties in relatively positive shape, despite a shaky start after Xi took office. Then, Beijing’s foreign and military positions and rhetoric became significantly more pugnacious, but despite this, and numerous irritants that continue to this day, including alleged cyber attacks on US interests by Beijing, ties became generally cordial.
This reflected, in part, the personal commitment of Presidents Barack Obama and Xi. Both recognised the super-priority of bilateral ties and, under Obama, Washington pursued a strategy with Beijing that promoted cooperation on softer issues like energy and climate change, while seeking constructive engagement on vexed, harder issues like the South China Sea tensions.
Meanwhile, Xi outlined, rhetorically at least, his desire to fundamentally redevelop a new type of great power relationship with the United States to avoid the conflictual great power patterns of the past. This is an audacious goal, which still lacks any obvious definition, and it is not certain if the pledge definitely still remains in place given the rhetorical bellicosity of Trump to China.
Taken overall, Tillerson’s trip has underlined that Washington is looking for a new approach in the increasingly tense North Korea stand-off. Following consultations with Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing, the Trump team will now re-examine its options, and this topic is likely to be a key feature of the conversation between Trump and Xi at their meeting in coming weeks.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.