On Wednesday, Thursday, and possibly Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. The city is hosting this year's second Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit.
It's an important opportunity for Tillerson and the Trump administration more generally.
For the secretary of state, the summit will be all about building personal relationships with his foreign counterparts. As of now, many foreign officials view Tillerson as a second string world player. Representing the United States, Tillerson is obviously important, but he is perceived as somewhat inactive and lethargic. He doesn't set the agenda in his meetings or show particular passion for issues. That leaves U.S. allies confused and concerned. They want to know what the U.S. government is thinking, planning, and prioritizing, so that they can decide to support or join those efforts. At present, however, they do not know where America stands.
And that obviously affects the Trump administration's interests.
After all, consider what's on the ASEAN summit's agenda.
The foreign ministers in attendance, including the one from China, will discuss Chinese efforts to seize control of the East and South China Seas. China's activities here have greatly upset every other nation in the region. These nations recognize that China is engaged in an imperialist gambit to control vast trade flows and energy reserves. And as I've explained, the U.S. has a particular interest in persuading this year's ASEAN host nation, the Philippines, to challenge China.
More broadly, the U.S. has the potential to galvanize ASEAN nations in banding together to pressure China to abandon its current strategy.
U.S. leadership at the ASEAN summit would also allow us to better confront North Korea.
Trade is the key here. If North Korea's exports decline, leader Kim Jong Un's comfort in his regime's security will also decrease. That's because exports are the crucial means by which North Korea generates Kim's capital flows. And while China accounts for approximately 80 percent of North Korean exports, other ASEAN members like Thailand and the Philippines are also important. Tillerson should work to prioritize the suspension of those trading relationships. At the margin, the U.S. must increase diplomatic pressure on North Korea whenever and however possible. The time to resolve this crisis peacefully is running out.
Ultimately, this is not a zero sum game. If Tillerson does not seize the initiative in Manila, the Chinese definitely will. And that will mean great damage to all the aforementioned U.S. interests.