Trans-Pacific View

Trump Administration Nominates Experienced Diplomat for Top Asia Spot at US State Department

Susan Thornton, an experienced career diplomat, may become the United States’ top Asia diplomat.

Trump Administration Nominates Experienced Diplomat for Top Asia Spot at US State Department
Credit: Screengrab via State Department

On Tuesday, the Trump administration formally nominated a candidate to fill the role of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Susan Thornton, a career diplomat who has held the position in an acting capacity since March, was nominated to the position.

She will replace Daniel R. Russel, the most recent nominated official to hold that position, who served in that position under the Obama administration from July 2013 to March 8, 2017.

Assuming a successful Senate approval, Thornton’s appointment would fill out a critical Asia policy-related position at the U.S. State Department with an experienced professional.

A career diplomat for more than twenty-five years, Thornton speaks Mandarin Chinese and Russian and has accompanied Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on multiple trips to the Asia-Pacific this year.

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According to multiple reports, Tillerson has long favored Thornton for the assistant secretary of state position.

Her appointment had previously been opposed by White House Chief Strategist Steven Bannon, who left the administration late in the summer.

In an interview with The American Prospect, Bannon singled out Thornton for criticism: “I’m getting Susan Thornton out at State,” he said.

“I’m changing out people at East Asian Defense; I’m getting hawks in,” Bannon added.

Thornton’s appointment came a day after the Trump administration released its first National Security Strategy document, which identified China as a major strategic and economic competitor for the United States.

Thornton, who served under the Obama administration and the Bush administration, has communicated the Trump administration’s Asia policy on multiple occasions to the press.

From February 2016 onward, she held the role of principal deputy assistant secretary, a role in which she was responsible for U.S. policy toward China, Taiwan, and Mongolia.

According to her biography on the U.S. Department of State’s website, Thornton served as “Deputy Chief of Mission to the U.S. Embassy in Turkmenistan, Deputy Director of the Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs at the State Department in Washington, Economic Unit Chief in the Office of Korean Affairs, and overseas postings in Beijing, Chengdu, Yerevan and Almaty.”

It’s unclear how much her appointment will affect the course of U.S. policy in Asia, which has mostly carried over momentum from the Obama administration with the exception of the Trump administration’s drastically different trade policy preferences.

Tillerson’s future at the State Department has come under question in recent months amid concerns that he is isolated from the White House’s policy-making process on critical issues, including denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.