The Trump team’s early forays into Asia couldn’t have gone better. In early February, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis received high praise for his trip to Tokyo and Seoul, reassuring nervous allies that the Trump administration would continue decades of American leadership in Asia. A week later, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe braved a visit to the White House and was rewarded with President Donald Trump reaffirming the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was poised to ride this momentum into Northeast Asia last week, but instead sustained a series of self-inflicted wounds. Before even departing Washington, he broke tradition by not inviting the State Department press corps on his plane, needlessly damaging relations with the media and forgoing the opportunity to better explain the contours of his mission. (“I’m not a big media press access person,” he said later, as if the only purpose of talking to reporters would be to serve his own agenda. “I personally don’t need it.”)
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He then decided against a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo in what would have been a simple and routine gesture to thank his overseas diplomats for their hard work. On his next stop in Seoul, Tillerson reportedly snubbed his hosts by turning down a dinner invitation due to what a South Korean official later descried as “fatigue.” Even as the secretary dismissed this characterization—a day later, because there was no American press around to rebut the claim—the occurrence of such a misunderstanding at all between two close allies was itself remarkable.
All this would have been bad enough. But Tillerson’s final act in Beijing was the most controversial and potentially damaging. Before meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the U.S. secretary of state parroted well-known Chinese Communist Party…