On Wednesday, the Trump administration announced that it would be nominating David Stilwell, a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general, to the position of assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, a position that has remained vacant since the departure of Susan Thornton, who held the office in an acting capacity. That last Senate-confirmed official to hold that position was Daniel Russel, an Obama administration appointee.
Stilwell is a knowledgeable Asia hand and was rumored to be in the running for the job earlier this year. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2015 and was previously a staff officer for Joint Staff Plans and Policy (Asia) at the U.S. Department of Defense and, prior to that, a defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He speaks Korean, Chinese, and some Japanese.
Stilwell would come to the State Department from his current role as the director of the China Strategic Focus Group at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (formerly Pacific Command) Headquarters. Outside of government, Stilwell has been an adjunct senior fellow at the East West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Stilwell would enter the State Department at a time when the U.S.-China relationship is undergoing a rapid period of deterioration. In recent weeks, China has canceled scheduled trade and military-to-military dialogues, including the Diplomatic and Strategic Dialogue. Military frictions are growing between the two sides as well, as encapsulated in the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s recent challenge to a U.S. Navy destroyer conducting a freedom of navigation operation in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
With Stilwell’s appointment, the State Department would be more fully staffed with regard to the Korean Peninsula, where the Trump administration has invested considerable diplomatic energy this year. Earlier this year, the administration filled a longstanding ambassadorial vacancy in Seoul by appointing Harry Harris, the former head of Indo-Pacific Command and once Stilwell’s boss. With Stilwell, Harris, and Steven Biegun, the administration’s special representative on North Korea, the Trump administration will be better staffed to handle the ongoing diplomatic process with North Korea.
The assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs is the top diplomat at the U.S. Department of State charged with managing U.S. policy toward East Asia, including Southeast Asia, China, the Korean Peninsula, and Japan. Thornton, the previous acting secretary, had been favored by former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but failed to gain support under his successor, Mike Pompeo.