US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Thailand early next week should provide a good opportunity to ask some basic questions about President Donald Trump’s policies towards Thailand and the rest of Asean – and whether the White House and State Department have come to a coherent set of policies on major issues related to this region.
Tillerson should have some understanding about Thailand. According to his official biography in 1995, he was made president of Esso Exploration and Production Khorat Inc before he was promoted to the CEO of ExxonMobil in 2006, the post he vacated six months ago to become Trump’s chief foreign policy officer.
Apart from discussing Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s upcoming visit to the White House, Tillerson should provide clarification on where Washington stands today on such important issues such as:
If the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is out, what is in? Where, for example, does he stand on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)?
If Obama’s ”pivot to Asia” policy is no more, what will be the US’s new security stance in this part of the world?
What exactly is Washington’s position on “North Korea: Peaceful pressure” (A new term from Tillerson) or “The time for talk is over” (as stated by the US Ambassador to the UN)?
Tillerson said on Tuesday that Washington was not seeking regime change in North Korea and would be open to dialogue, a stance seemingly at odds with President Trump and administration officials.
In a news conference marking six months since his swearing-in, he declared that the US was not aiming to topple North Korean leader Kim Jong-un or looking for “an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel”.
“We do not seek regime change; we do not seek the collapse of the regime; we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula; we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel,” Tillerson said. “And we’re trying to convey to the North Koreans we are not your enemy, we are not your threat – but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond.”
Tillerson said the breakneck pace of the North’s missile and nuclear weapons programmes was one of the Trump administration’s most urgent foreign policy issues, noting that it was the first issue the White House had confronted.
But Trump has pinned much of his strategy for halting Pyongyang’s advances on China pressuring the Kim regime.
In one of his recent tweets, Trump threw diplomatic manners into the air and declared that he was “disappointed” with China – suggesting that there had been only talk and no action from Beijing.
While Tillerson was talking about having “a dialogue” with North Korea, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said that Trump had told him war between the US and North Korea over the rogue nation’s missile programme was imminent if Pyongyang continued to aim its long-range missiles at America.
“He has told me that. I believe him,” Graham said on NBC’s “Today” programme. “If I were China, I would believe him, too, and do something about it.”
While Tillerson agreed there was no attempt at regime change in North Korea, senior officials in the Trump administration, including CIA chief Mike Pompeo, have hinted that Washington was open to the possibility of regime change.
Tillerson reiterated this stance on Tuesday, saying the US would continue its campaign of “peaceful pressure”.
“We felt the appropriate thing to do first was to seek peaceful pressure on the regime … to have them develop a willingness to sit and talk with us and others, but with an understanding that a condition of those talks is there is no future in which North Korea holds nuclear weapons or the ability to deliver those nuclear weapons to anyone in the region, much less to the homeland,” he said.
On trade and investment, it would be very interesting to find out just where Tillerson stands on free trade and trade protectionism.
In 2013, as the top executive of ExxonMobil, he threw his support behind the proposed TPP by telling the Global Security Forum:
“One of the most promising developments on this front is the ongoing effort for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The 11 nations that have been working to lower trade barriers and end protectionist policies under this partnership are a diverse mix of developed and developing economies. But all of them understand the value of open markets to growth and progress for every nation.”
Has he changed his mind on that – and what role does free trade in the Trump administration’s election pledge to “Make America Great Again”?
Tillerson has said “America First is not America alone.”
How can we help to make America great again while we don’t get trampled in the process?