US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives in Asia on Wednesday on his first official trip to Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing. It won't be smooth sailing. Amid spiralling regional security tensions and escalating rumours about his impotence within Donald Trump's administration, Tillerson has a big task ahead.
But the visit isn't only a test of his ability to succeed as the United States' top diplomat. What he offers the region in words and deeds will signal whether President Trump is going to get the balance right between military tools and diplomatic engagement in Asia.
So far the signs are not encouraging.
Tillerson appears to be on the outside. Trump has given son-in-law Jared Kushner and strategist Steve Bannon outsized roles in foreign policy and proposed a 37 per cent cut to the State Department's budget. When the Mexican Foreign Minister was in Washington last week, he went straight to Trump's advisers and did not even meet the Secretary of State.
If Tillerson is to stamp his authority on US foreign policy, he should follow the lead of Defence Secretary James Mattis. Whereas Tillerson has made only a handful of public remarks and is travelling to Asia without a press pool, Mattis regularly engages the media to stake out policy positions.
Australia has a vital interest in a strong Secretary of State who can moderate Trump's affinity for the military and convince the President that diplomacy is an effective tool for addressing Asia's strategic challenges.
Although Asia is not yet a tinderbox, it's not far off. North Korea is steaming ahead with its nuclear program and increasing provocative missile tests, causing the US to rush through its deployment of an anti-ballistic missile battery to South Korea. Meanwhile, a power vacuum has opened in Seoul following a bizarre corruption scandal that toppled president Park Geun-hye last week, leaving the country in caretaker mode until elections in May.
All this is happening amid deepening US-China tensions. Not only is Beijing enraged at Washington's placement of missile defences on the Korean Peninsula – which it fears will target China's nukes as well – it's wary of Trump's confrontational stance on everything from US-Taiwan relations to trade and the South China Sea.
Managing these tensions requires a strong diplomatic component to America's Asia policy. As Pyongyang is within two years or less of achieving a long-range nuclear strike capability, most experts agree that coercive solutions alone cannot diffuse tensions or manage the hermit kingdom's nuclear weapons program.
Foreign policy priority
Following the election, the then president Barack Obama impressed upon Trump that North Korea should be his top foreign policy priority. Trump has somewhat followed through, and the administration is reviewing all its policy options towards the North Korean regime.
The military options are awful. Whether it be pre-emptively striking Pyongyang's nuclear facilities or stepping up the deployment of US forces to the region, the risk of a wider regional crisis is increasing. President Obama ordered a cyber-campaign to sabotage North Korea's missile program which seems to have run its course, leaving the administration with few direct options. Further sanctions against North Korea or Chinese companies still conducting business across the border will take time to put in place, and longer still to take effect.
Careful diplomacy is urgently required to reach a sustainable long-term solution to North Korea's nuclear ambitions. This is where a strong Secretary of State is necessary to pull all the players together.
Tillerson will have to find his voice and assume this role.
The former oilman has already riled Beijing by criticising China's "empty promises" to put pressure on Pyongyang and raised the threat of new sanctions on Chinese coal-importing firms. Although he has a small cache of diplomatic goodwill for having convinced Trump to adhere to the "One China" policy, China knows he's been marginalised ever since and may not be inclined to take him seriously.
To make Beijing a more cooperative partner on the Peninsula, Tillerson will have to prove that he still has the President's ear. He will also need to improve the administration's relationship with China – moderating Washington's hawkish public tone on certain issues, such as currency and sanctions enforcement, to induce Beijing to compromise on its recalcitrant neighbour.
At the same time, the Secretary will need to get the United States' Asian allies and partners on board. Japan, which is deeply worried about a nuclear North Korea, must be persuaded that Washington has a viable strategy. In South Korea, the challenge is different. Tillerson needs to convince the opposition Democratic Party – tipped to take power in May – that Washington's tough stance on Pyongyang and Beijing is a better way to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough than renewed engagement.
If he fails, there's a real risk South Korean and American policy could get out of sync, playing to North Korea's advantage.
As the Secretary of State is often regarded as the second most important position in the US government, it's time for Tillerson to take constructive steps to calm an increasingly nervous region. Whether Trump will allow him to do this remains to be seen.