US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has a tough job on his hands when he comes to Asia later in the month.
His five-day visit, which includes stops in Japan, China and South Korea, will see him walk into a region increasingly on edge over North Korea’s mounting provocations.
Top of the agenda will be the escalating crisis of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s volatile behaviour which hit its zenith on Monday after the simultaneous launch of four missiles into waters off the Japanese coast.
Pyongyang has said it was a drill for striking American bases in Japan.
This follows a tense few weeks that saw the assassination of Kim’s estranged half-brother on Malaysian soil and the threat of the country’s ever-expanding nuclear arsenal.
US President Donald Trump’s administration officials have said “all options” to deal with North Korea are under consideration, a departure from the policy of “strategic patience” pursued by his predecessor Barack Obama.
Managing tensions with China
Tillerson’s meeting with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping will likely be tense, given the move by the US to deploy a missile defence system in South Korea this week.
The Americans claim the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system (THAAD) is needed to protect its ally who has long been threatened by North Korea.
But the news was met with an angry response from Beijing.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Monday such deployment would undermine “the strategic balance of the region” and “the security interests” of countries, including China.
While this may be their diplomatic line, Beijing is not convinced with the US’s justification for the anti-missile system as it is only designed to intercept short and medium range missiles, not the intercontinental ballistic missiles that pose a threat to American soil.
Beijing sees the THAAD deployment as part of the US’s efforts to contain Chinese power and stir anti-Chinese sentiment in the region; and believes the system to be part of America’s grand strategy to set up similar defences across Asia, thus tilting the balance of power away from Beijing.
It would be easy to view US’s rush to implement THAAD as being just as much about politics as it is about defence.
Trump’s organisation has repeatedly made it clear they feel China is not doing enough to help curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and US officials have warned China in the past that failure to take action would force it to implement defences in the region; it appears they are now following through with these threats.
Amid the escalating tensions between all parties involved, China has requested all sides take a step back and divert the risk of provoking a regional atomic arms race and potential conflict.
Comparing tensions on the Korean peninsula to two “accelerating trains coming toward each other”, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Monday urged North Korea to “suspend nuclear activity” and told the US and South Korea to “suspend large-scale military drills” that Wang believes are the driving force behind Kim’s provocations.
With Beijing urging all parties to step back, and with the administration being in a diplomatic standoff with South Korea over the THAAD installation, Tillerson is unlikely to find a receptive audience in his meeting with Xi.
During his trip, Tillerson is expected to urge China, which has considerable economic leverage with North Korea, to strengthen pressure on the Kim regime, as well as seek China’s approval of the THAAD system.
But, despite Beijing’s mounting criticism of Kim’s regime, these will still prove to be a tall order for Tillerson given China’s historic coddling of North Korea and their seeming willingness to allow it to circumvent sanctions already imposed by the US and the UN.
Xi, in his negotiations, will be conducting a mental balancing act between his approach to North Korea and his response to the US.
He will need to weigh up his opposition to North Korea’s nuclear programme with the prospect of the nation’s collapse.
While far from an ideal situation for Beijing, instability in North Korea enables the country to act as a buffer zone between China and South Korea. With a stable and unified Korea, China faces the prospect of having US troops amassed on their doorstep – a scenario they will be eager to avoid.
Maintaining the trilateral alliance
In Seoul, Tillerson will meet South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se. While the meeting will likely be friendlier between the allies, there are still a number of issues that need to be addressed.
Maintaining a strong trilateral alliance is key to a defence against North Korea and moves by the US and South Korea to deploy THAAD have driven a wedge between South Korea and Beijing.
Many in South Korea are concerned with the economic implications of a diplomatic row with China, with concern Xi may move to block imports.
This will be a significant blow to the small nation whose economy relies on exports for growth and reaps a huge annual trade surplus from China.
Chinese authorities have already closed nearly two dozen retail stores of South Korea’s Lotte Group, which approved a land swap with the military last week for the installation of the anti-missile system.
The row escalated further when the ruling Liberty Korea Party’s policy committee chairman Lee Hyun-jae said on Tuesday South Korea would actively consider filing a complaint to the World Trade Organization over what it considered trade retaliation.
Tillerson will also stop by Japan to meet Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, according to the South China Morning Post.
As a country within range of North Korea’s missiles, Japan has been urging stronger American action in the region, but has been uncertain as to how much it wants to commit should a conflict become a reality.
Influential Japanese lawmakers were pushing on Wednesday for Japan to develop the ability to strike pre-emptively at the missile facilities of its nuclear-armed neighbour. But the country has so far avoided taking the controversial and costly step of acquiring weapons with the ability to strike other countries, relying instead on the US to take the fight to its enemies.
The ever-present threat of North Korea
All of this diplomatic back and forth between the parties happens under the dark shadow of Pyongyang and their advancing arsenal.
The North Koreans have used this transition period of the US presidency and the ensuing diplomatic fallout to advance their cause and amp up pressure on the Trump administration.
The latest missile tests on Monday were of particular concern to military officials due to the very short notice needed to launch and their ability to deploy missiles simultaneously.
“What we saw … was a demonstration of a near-term simultaneous launch,” said Vice-Admiral James D. Syring, director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defence Agency.
“That is something beyond what we have seen in the past.”
While Tillerson attempts to placate the numerous entities in this tricky set-up, we can’t forget Pyongyang ultimately holds an ace card.
North Korea has the ability to destroy Seoul at any given moment using artillery buried in the mountains just north of the Demilitarised Zone, a remnant of the Korean War.
They also pose the threat of being the unpredictable wild card in these proceedings.
Sanctions have so far proven redundant when reining in the volatile leader, mainly due to the fact North Korea has so little to lose.
Kim appears to maintain a seeming disregard for the well-being of his citizens, choosing military advancement over social security.
With this mindset, Kim is less likely to fear the diplomatic and social consequences of any military attack he decides to launch.
The heady combination of military and diplomatic tensions simmering in the region are enough to test even the most senior diplomat. For newly appointed Tillerson, they pose an almost insurmountable challenge.
He will never have seen a proliferation problem on this scale and of these consequences in all of his experience as Exxon Mobil CEO.
His learning curve on global diplomacy is certainly going to be a steep one.