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BEIJING — While no single issue will define the future relationship between the United States and China, the imminent threat North Korea poses must be the first priority between the two, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in an interview en route to the Chinese capital.
“The threat of North Korea is imminent. And it has reached a level that we are very concerned about the consequences of North Korea being allowed to continue on this progress it’s been making on the development of both weapons and delivery systems,” he said.
The rogue state launched a medium-range ballistic missile in February and four in March, three of which fell into Japanese waters. North Korea claimed launching the missiles was a reaction to joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea happening now in Seoul, leading the United States to speed up planned delivery of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to the South Koreans, which the Chinese have protested.
But there is yet another practical reason behind those tests.
Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security and a former State Department and National Security Council official with Asian expertise, explained to Independent Journal Review last week, "The reason why North Korea fired four missiles in rapid succession was likely to practice defeating missile defenses.”
But with the Chinese and the likely installment of a more liberal South Korean president in the spring both pressing engagement, how can the United States assist in getting ahead of the next North Korean provocation?
“We’re not sure if we can get ahead of them,” Tillerson answered. “If they just continue, you know, we’re headed to a place no one wants to be.”
In clarifying remarks he made to Fox News on Friday on whether South Korea and Japan should have nuclear weapons as a protective measure, Tillerson said, “A denuclearized Korean peninsula negates any thought or need for Japan to have nuclear weapons. We say all options are on the table, but we cannot predict the future. So we do think it is important that everyone in the region has a clear understanding that circumstances could evolve to the point that for mutual deterrence reasons, we might have to consider that. But as I said yesterday, there are a lot of … there’s a lot of steps and a lot of distance between now and a time that we would have to make a decision like that.”
Complicating the escalating rhetoric, hours before Tillerson's contingent departed from Seoul, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to write, “North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been 'playing' the United States for years. China has done little to help!”
Tillerson shook his head 'no' when asked if he knew the president was planning to needle the Chinese ahead of his high-stakes meetings here, including a Sunday session with President Xi Jinping.
“I did not know that he was going to tweet anything out, but the message that he sent out is very consistent with the message that I’ve been delivering so far in Tokyo and in Seoul,” he said.
The relationship between the two global powers has been fraught, particularly in light of the president's aggressive remarks toward China on the campaign trail in 2016.
Tillerson said it's too early to couch how the relationship will change and suggested that Trump and Xi need to spend some extended time together, which they will do in April when Xi visits the president's so-called Southern White House at Mar-a-Lago.
“The overall China-U.S. relationship really needs better clarity that can only be achieved by a meeting between our two leaders — a face-to-face meeting — and some time for them to be together and some time for us to exchange views in a number of these areas — whether they’re economic or security or cultural and people to people,” he said.
Media censorship is one among the many complaints U.S. officials have long had about the rival superpower, and Tillerson’s predecessors have always traveled with a press corps in part to display the importance of a free press.
But under Tillerson, the State Department has come under fire for choosing not to allow its press corps to send a travel pool along with him to his three stops in Asia this week and instead extending an invitation to a single reporter who had previously requested an interview. His primary reason for not including a press corps was cost savings.
“I’m not a big media press access person,” he said, adding that when he has a message to get out, he knows how to find the media.
He wouldn't commit to changing the practice of excluding a travel pool on future diplomatic missions. He’ll make the decision on a trip-by-trip basis.