Trial By Fire: Tillerson’s First Diplomatic Challenge

Trial by Fire: Tillerson's First Diplomatic Challenge

Newly-appointed Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, will have to forget about the “honeymoon.” Although he was just appointed to his position on Feb. 1, he will have very little time to ramp-up for what will likely be one of the most challenging visits he will make as Secretary of State — his first trip to Asia.
The former Exxon-CEO-turned diplomat is traveling this week to Japan, South Korea, and finally to Beijing. But it will be his trip to China that threatens to really test his mettle. The Chinese wield the most influence over the rogue nation of North Korea, which is President Trump’s biggest security concern at the moment. North Korea’s recent missile test launches have U.S. allies in the region extremely nervous. The brass ring for Tillerson on this trip will be to bring home assurances that China will help rein-in North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, who has made it clear that his primary goal is to perfect a nuclear weapon that will reach the U.S.
However, getting that assurance will be tough. China, with the second largest economy in the world (the U.S. is first), is increasingly less beholden to other world powers. The Chinese have been growing their military at an unprecedented rate in recent years. In fact, it’s so unprecedented that the U.S. will have to amp-up its own military just to keep up. Clearly, China won’t be told what to do.
In addition, after the U.S. deployed an anti-missile system last week in South Korea, and with President Trump constantly targeting China with threats of tariffs because of the huge trade deficit between the U.S. and China, negotiations with Tillerson won’t get any easier.
Tillerson plans to communicate to the Chinese that the U.S. is tired of Chinese companies helping North Korea get weapons. It is hoped that he can lay the groundwork for a type of coalition similar to the one brought together during the nuclear deal with Iran, in which China can participate. With that in mind, Tillerson will also be solidifying plans for Chinese President, Xi Jinping, to visit the U.S. in April.
But pulling together a coalition of countries with the purpose of curbing the North Koreans’ nuclear activities will require that the Chinese stop playing “big brother” to North Korea. Let’s hope Tillerson will be the man to help make that happen.