The U.S. rebalance toward Asia has hit a few road bumps this year: North Korean nuclear and missile tests, a new and anti-American Philippines president, never-ending headaches in the South China Sea. But one of the architects of the rebalance says the truth of the region lies beneath the public bluster.
Take North Korea. In just five years, Kim Jong Un has presided over almost twice as many missile launches as his father did in 18 years; his nuclear tests are undermining regional security. Daniel Russel, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told reporters Wednesday that he takes the threat “very, very seriously.”
But Russel also said that the North Korean leader doesn’t want war. Instead, Kim aims to make the international community “accept North Korea as a legitimate nuclear power—to provide it assistance, afford it diplomatic recognition and honors, and at best negotiate some sort of arms control agreement.”
“Attacking South Korea would not seem to fit into that strategy,” he said. “Threatening South Korea and the United States does.”
Russell also said there is more to the U.S.-Philippines relationship, than President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent threats to “break up” with America. In July, Duterte told Secretary of State John Kerry of his “determination to stand by the U.S.-Philippines alliance,” the U.S. diplomat said.
“I’m not going to try to get into the head of a foreign leader and explain what his motives may be for the flamboyant and often very controversial way in which he speaks,” Russel said. “I heard what he said behind closed doors when he met with Secretary Kerry in a very cordial, constructive, substantive and extended lunch early in his tenure.”
Some have suggested that Duterte’s incendiary rhetoric, official trips to China, and pronouncements cancelling exercises with the American military are an attempt to play the two superpowers against each other. Russel said it was not in the Philippines’ interest to be conciliatory to China over matters like the South China Sea, but added that a dialogue between the two was a good thing.
“I think the prospect of the Philippines pulling out of a long stretch of very tense relations with Beijing is a desirable one,” he said.