U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to make his first trip to the Asia-Pacific later this month, according to Japan’s Kyodo news agency. Tillerson is expected to visit Japan, South Korea, and China, according to the report.
Neither of the four governments involved has officially confirmed the trip, but Kyodo, citing Japanese diplomatic sources, reported that Tillerson was expected to visit Japan on March 17 and 18.
Since his confirmation by the U.S. Senate, Tillerson has spoken with his counterparts from all three countries, both on the phone and in person at the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in Bonn, Germany — his first overseas trip.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In Bonn, Tillerson held private meetings with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, and conferred trilaterally with both ministers as well.
Tillerson’s meetings with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts focused on issues of regional and global concern for the respective alliances, especially the three countries’ common North Korea challenge. Pyongyang had carried out its first missile test of 2017 as well as staged the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half brother in Malaysia days before the G20 meeting.
Tillerson also held a short meeting on the sidelines of the Bonn G20 meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. According to a U.S. State Department readout of the call, the two leaders discussed the U.S.-China bilateral relationship, the North Korea’s “destabilizing behavior,” and “the need to create a level playing field for trade and investment.”
Tillerson’s Asia tour would notably follow a similar trip by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in early February, which included stops in Seoul and Tokyo, but not in Beijing. South Korea and Japan, in particular, remain eager for assurances from the Trump administration that their alliances with the United States remain in good stead.
Japan is additionally eager to carry forward momentum from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s successful visit to the United States in early February and work toward a state visit for U.S. President Donald Trump in Japan soon.
The China leg of Tillerson’s visit will be watched closely for signs that the U.S. secretary of state is laying the groundwork for a potential meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Donald Trump later this spring or early in the summer.
Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi visited Washington last week, becoming the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit the United States since Trump’s inauguration. Yang met with Tillerson in addition to other senior members of the Trump administration.
Trump’s affirmation of the United States’ decades-old One China policy in his first presidential phone call with Xi has allowed U.S.-China relations to progress under the new administration, after a slow start.
In all three capitals, Tillerson will no doubt spend considerable time on the North Korean question. Pyongyang’s parallel nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs demonstrated considerable progress in 2016 and shows no signs of a slowdown.