(Aug 11): Rex Tillerson has had to make several tricky diplomatic tours since becoming US secretary of state. He wrapped up his latest, this time to Southeast Asia, on Wednesday. With stops in the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia, Tillerson’s goal was to assure regional leaders that the Trump administration cares about this strategically important area which — if massed collectively — has the sixth largest economy in the world.
Yet far from bringing the parties closer together, the trip was overshadowed by developments in North Korea, and only underscored the fact that the agendas of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries — Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam – are not completely aligned with those of the White House.
While some officials of ASEAN members acknowledged concerns about North Korea, they also cited concerns about trade relations with the United States. “We haven’t really discussed that among ourselves,” said Philippine acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo of the US call to minimize relations with Pyongyang.
Before Trump’s election, the Obama administration supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to emphasize its regional commitment and also to push back on China’s growing power and presence, which is a concern for many ASEAN states. But Trump pulled out of that initiative shortly after taking office and has offered no alternatives.
On the political front too, the administration has only limited affinity with ASEAN allies. The latter wanted to give priority to a broad range of issues such as maritime security, Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and regional counter-terrorism strategies.
Instead, Tillerson put the Korean stand-off center stage following US concerns after Pyongyang’s two intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests last month showed it had the capacity to hit the US mainland. The regime added to the tensions with its threat Wednesday to launch a missile strike on the US territory of Guam in the Pacific. Southeast Asian states also are concerned about Kim Jong Un, but do not generally share Washington’s prioritization of the issue because they are concerned it de-emphasizes other critical topics such as South China Sea tensions.
In this context, Tillerson used the weekend gathering of the ASEAN regional forum, Asia’s biggest security group that also includes “outside” nations such as the United States, North Korea and Japan, to try to isolate Pyongyang by “drastically” reducing their dealings with it. (North Korea’s foreign minister attended the meeting, but Tillerson did not acknowledge his presence.) The forum took a stronger line than usual on North Korea, calling for the regime to comply with UN Security Council resolutions on its nuclear program and unanimously agreeing on Saturday to ban mineral and seafood exports worth some one billion dollars to the regime.
Along with this sanctions diplomacy, the United States and South Korea conducted their latest tests last month of the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system. Condemned by North Korea, China and Russia, THAAD is being deployed by Washington in South Korea as a defense against possible missile launches by Pyongyang.
Recent US rhetoric has heightened international concerns that Trump might now be thinking more seriously about a pre-emptive strike on Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities. On Tuesday, Trump asserted that he will respond with “fire and fury” to North Korea, which he previously said “is behaving in a very dangerous manner, and something will have to be done about it...and probably dealt with rapidly.”
While Washington’s next steps are not clear, it looks increasingly likely that the two-decade US policy of “strategic patience” towards Pyongyang may now be over. Aside from military force, scenarios range from a new round of peace talks to more aggressive actions like intercepting ships suspected of selling North Korea weapons abroad, one of the regime’s key sources of income.
Washington knows it would be wise to try to bring other key parties, especially Beijing, on board for any intensified measures. Beijing, however, along with countries like Russia, has been reluctant to take more comprehensive, sweeping measures against Pyongyang, especially after the agreement on the new sanctions last Saturday.
China has taken some unilateral actions to tighten the screws on North Korea, including banning all coal imports into the country in February. However, it is unlikely to squeeze its neighbor too hard for fear of pushing the regime hard enough to destabilize it. From the vantage point of Beijing, this risks North Korea behaving even more unpredictably and, although unlikely, could even lead to the fall of Kim Jong Un.
Beijing wants to keep the regime in place for at least two reasons. One is that if the Communist regime in Pyongyang falls it could undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party too. In addition, Beijing fears that the collapse of order in North Korea could lead to instability on the North Korea-China border, a potentially large influx of refugees that it would need to manage, and ultimately the potential emergence of a new pro-US successor to Kim.
Against this backdrop, Tillerson’s Korea-focused trip did little to ease concerns of Washington’s ASEAN allies that the area is not one of Trump’s major priorities. If tensions with Pyongyang continue to grow, a risk is that the stand-off in the Korean peninsula will suck up much of the administration’s foreign policy focus in coming months. This could shift US attention further from the wider regional agenda, including South China Sea tensions, which remains crucial to Washington’s Southeast Asia friends.
(Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics. The opinions expressed here are his own.)