Rex Tillerson’s stops in Japan and South Korea are just warm-ups. The real show time is Saturday when he reaches China.
The new US secretary of state will not be on a mission to merely present his credentials, but is expected to talk tough to Beijing – echoing the voice of his boss Donald Trump who, during last year’s presidential election campaign, routinely attacked China for her trade and monetary policies.
But it is not trade that will dominate Tillerson’s talks but North Korea, which seems to have accelerated its nuclear program in the last few months, sending waves of fear throughout the region, especially South Korea.
The Trump administration wants China, which counts for North Korea’s closest ally, to do much more to reign in Pjongyang. During his visit in Japan on Thursday, Tillerson has urged a new approach to the North Korean nuclear threat.
But the chances of Tillerson persuading Beijing to do more to curb North Korea’s weapons programs appear scant, given China’s anger at the deployment of a US anti-missile system in South Korea last week, and Trump’s repeated threats to impose punitive tariffs on Beijing to correct a large trade imbalance.
China says its influence has limits with neighbor and ally North Korea, which launched four more ballistic missiles last week and is working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States.
As a sign of goodwill, China has imposed a ban on coal imports from North Korea, a move that—if fully implemented—would deprive the regime of a crucial stream of revenue.
But many analysts doubt Beijing will uphold the ban, given the instability it could create on China’s borders.
“China has instead put the ball in the U.S., with the foreign minister suggesting a deal whereby North Korea agrees to stop testing missiles and the United States and South Korea stop joint military exercises”, Anna Fifield writes in the Washington Post.
The US and South Korea have rejected this proposal out of hand, although it seems that such tough talk is easier for Washington than for Seoul.
Analysts point out that both governments might not be on the same page forever.
“If Seoul chooses to appease Pyongyang by providing it with financial assistance, for example, the loopholes in the global sanctions regime will grow, and the fissures in the US-led alliance will widen,” writes Sung-Yoon Lee, professor in Korean Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, in Foreign Affairs.
Washington is determined to keep the anti-Pjongyang alliance in place and instead put more pressure on Beijing.
According to news reports, Tillerson will tell his counterparts in China that the US is prepared to increase financial penalties against Chinese companies and banks that do business with North Korea.
In a rare interview with CNN Thursday, an official with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the Chinese hoped the US would not move forward with the new penalties.
“We hope they will not,” said Xiao Qian, the Director General of the Asian Affairs department. “Because then it is not fair and that’s not right. That’s not the correct way of dealing with things.”
If Tillerson and his counterparts in Beijing do not find common ground on North Korea, they might leave it to their principals.
China’s President Xi Jinping of China will visit Donald Trump on April 6–7 – possibly at Trump’s Florida resort at Mar-a-Lago.