Tokyo, Mar 16: The United States' top diplomat is in Tokyo on Thursday to reassure allies that Washington stands with them in the face of the accelerating missile threat from North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson began his first Asian tour in Japan's capital and was to hold talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.
He brings with him greetings from President Donald Trump, who caused consternation during his White House campaign by suggesting US allies need to do more to defend themselves.
But Tillerson, the former oilman Trump chose to head his diplomatic team, is expected to reaffirm support for Japan and South Korea, where he journeys Friday, before heading to China on Saturday. There, he will urge his hosts to pressure Kim Jong-Un's regime to halt Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile programs before committing to eventual peace talks.
It is Tillerson's first major foray into crisis diplomacy, after brief trips to Bonn and Mexico City, but he has not managed to leave Washington controversy behind him. A small group of American expats protested outside the US embassy in Tokyo, demanding the former ExxonMobil chief executive respect the Paris climate change accord. And, back home, arguments raged over his decision to break with 50 years of tradition by refusing to allow the Washington diplomatic press corps to fly on his plane.
Some 20 US-based reporters flew commercially to Japan to follow the visit, but only one, a hand-picked writer from a small conservative outlet, was allowed on his jet. Back home, Trump is expected to unveil his budget blueprint later Thursday. Former top diplomats have denounced the plan, expected to call for slashing State Department spending, as a hammer blow to US influence.
Tillerson, while keeping a low public profile, appears, however, ready to cautiously support deep cuts. State Department officials insist that the focus of the trip will be North Korea and efforts to rebalance commerce without provoking a trade war with the Chinese giant.
Acting spokesman Mark Toner told reporters this week that efforts to convince China to pressure North Korea were the "looming challenge" in trans-Pacific relations. "He's going to have an opportunity at every stop to talk about next steps or what we do now, with respect to North Korea," he said.