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U.S. Secretary of State Visits Japan, South Korea and China; By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Article no: 0027/2017

We seek your views in advance of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Asia this week. How will the two following developments impact on his visit?

Q1– Which countries have the most to gain or lose from the visit? For what reasons?

ANSWER: Secretary Tillerson’s visit has multiple objectives and the balance sheet will differ for each country. Certainly Japan and South Korea will benefit from reassurance by another Trump Administration Cabinet member that the U.S. will stand by and assist its allies against North Korea. Japan will welcome continued support for ballistic missile defence. South Korea is in the throes of electing a new president and the leading contender reportedly supports a “sunshine policy” of engagement with the North. This raises some doubts on the timetable to deploy the THAAD ballistic missile system. China is the loser in this case because it fears THAAD will allow the United States to electronically reach into China and undermine China’s nuclear deterrent. China will continue to cooperate and compete with the United States. A renewed U.S. focus on Northeast Asia, and the invocation of Article 5 of the US-Japan mutual security treaty will not be welcomed in Beijing. U.S. engagement will be viewed as emboldening Japan’s Abe government.

Q2– How will China respond to Tillerson’s threats of sanctions against North Korea and on trying to contain Chinese maritime expansion, assuming both topics are on the agenda?

ANSWER: One of Tillerson’s objectives during his visit to Beijing is to set up a summit meeting between president Donald Trump and Xi Jinping in April. My assessment is that both sides will have to agree to disagree on both issues. North Korea’s provocations are aimed at both the U.S.-South Korea/Japan alliances and at China for pressuring North Korea. Chinese sanctions have not resulted in any moderation of North Korean behaviour. China is likely to hold to the present line, make enforcement of sanctions more effective but hold back on heaping more pressure on North Korea. China does not want the outbreak of armed conflict or the collapse of the North Korean regime.

China will push back on any attempt by the U.S. to curtail its activities in the South China Sea. China will argue that the U.S. should exercise restraint and not undermine the present trend towards dialogue between China and the Philippines and other ASEAN members. China just announced that a draft Code of Conduct has been drawn up that will now be considered by all parties. China will win to the extent that Tillerson agrees to disagree and leave discussion of these matters to the two presidents. China will run true to course and urge the U.S. to cooperate on global issues. Since the Trump Administration doesn’t seem to have a policy for the South China Sea the status quo will prevail. It remains to be seen whether Xi Jinping will repeat his September 2015 promise to President Obama in the White House Rose Garden not to militarize the South China Sea. In sum, China wins if the presidential summit at Mar a Largo goes ahead and the two leaders give the appearance of progress on North Korea.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. Email: All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients.]

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