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US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson heads into volatile territory with his first trip to Asia -

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ELEANOR HALL: The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is preparing for his first visit to Asia this week, and already, he is breaking precedent by barring the media from travelling with him.

His visit coincides with rising political and military tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Ashley Townshend is a Research Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University.

His research focus is international security and strategic affairs in the Asia-Pacific.

He joined me earlier.

Ashley Townshend thank you so much for joining us.

ASHLEY TOWNSHEND: Thanks for having me.

ELEANOR HALL: Now the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is making his first visit to Asia this week, just as the North Korean regime is pushing further than ever on missile testing and there's a power vacuum in South Korea with the impeachment of the President.

How much pressure does this put on the new Secretary as he's making his first trip to Asia?

ASHLEY TOWNSHEND: Look, there is a lot of pressure on not just Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but on the administration, the Trump administration in general, to craft some sort of response to the emerging powder keg in North Korea.

The admin has to deal with not just the power vacuum in South Korea, but in fact potential political change in the coming months, where the liberal party in South Korea might come in with a very different approach towards the North, a more of a conciliatory approach, trying to find the diplomatic path again.

At the same time, the US administration has deployed its missile defense system to South Korea, and has been making some very tough calls about North Korean policy.

Tillerson himself has talked about secondary sanctions on China, and in fact, we're getting to a situation where discoordination between the United States and Seoul could become a problem.

So this creates a lot of tension.

ELEANOR HALL: So what is the risk that any misstep by the US Secretary of State could have dangerous consequences?

ASHLEY TOWNSHEND: I think the key question is just how much influence Tillerson will have on this situation. He has not yet really staked out a strong position with regards to dealing directly with this situation.

He's talked about secondary sanctions on China - that's something that has aggravated the Chinese, even as they have cracked down a little bit this year on coal importations from North Korea. But sanctions are a slow burn initiative. They're not about dealing with a crisis in the short term.

For the short term, Jim Mattis, Secretary of Defense, has taken the lead. It's his initiative that has deployed the missile defence system early, and it's clearly defence which has got the stronger position in this administration to stake out options for North Korea policy.

There is a policy review underway in Defense on this issue right now.

ELEANOR HALL: Does that make it more dangerous, that Defense takes charge, rather than the State Department?

ASHLEY TOWNSHEND: I think in terms of looking for longer solutions for this crisis, the role of the State Department is crucial.

In a crisis, it's not surprising that Defense would take the lead; and it's certainly not a surprise that Trump has asked Jim Mattis to put together options - with everything on the table, from pre-emptive strikes on North Korea to a return to negotiations.

But if US policy is to be accepted in the region, it can't just be a hard military footprint. So that's where Tillerson needs to have not just the respect of countries - stakeholders in the region - but the respect of his administration as well, to bring together key parties; China, South Korea, North Korea, and the United States, to come to some sort of temporary at least solution, a hiatus to this crisis, where a return to diplomacy is an option.

ELEANOR HALL: To what extend does the political crisis in South Korea make it difficult for Rex Tillerson to even know who to talk to?

ASHLEY TOWNSHEND: Well you've hit the key question right there - it's very hard when there's a potential regime change coming up in South Korea for Tillerson to find the right people to speak to. You can speak to all sides, but crafting a policy on such a sensitive issue, where differences between the two parties are very entrenched, will be difficult.

If the new regime is indeed that lead by Moon Jae-in, which will likely want to see America's missile defence system may be withdrawn from the Peninsula, and will likely want to work with China to talk to the North Koreans, then you have a situation where the current trend in US policy to get tough in fact will work at loggerheads with those of their ally on this issue, and that will create enormous coordination problems. It could hijack a solution.

ELEANOR HALL: China is of course also a big player in North Korea, and the Trump administration's accused the Chinese of not doing enough to rein in North Korea's nuclear ambitions. What do you expect Rex Tillerson will be asking of the Chinese on North Korea?

ASHLEY TOWNSHEND: Rex Tillerson will be making the point that he made in his Senate Confirmation Hearing, that Beijing has been guilty of empty promises on North Korea for some time. Now, this is something that has already frustrated policy-makers in Beijing, who have been quick to point out that from their perspective, they've done all they can.

So Tillerson is going to be making that point. He has a little bit of diplomatic room for manoeuvre because he was the guy in Washington that talked Trump around more than anyone else on the One China policy.

So he will be looked at favourably from Beijing for that. But at the same time, his rhetoric on North Korea has been tough, and so it's unclear whether the officials in Beijing will want to work with him on this issue, or if they'll be pushing to see what they can get away with.

ELEANOR HALL: Well Rex Tillerson has taken the unprecedented step for a Secretary of State of barring the media from travelling with him on this trip. How do you read that?

ASHLEY TOWNSHEND: I think it really speaks to the struggles that Tillerson has in working within the new Trump administration. He doesn't want too much scrutiny on this particular visit because at the moment, it's not really clear how he's working with Trump, how much respect he has by the Trump administration, or really what the State Department will stand for when it comes to Asia policies.

ELEANOR HALL: There is a lot of speculation that Rex Tillerson is shaping up as a very weak Secretary of State. President Trump is slashing his department, has vetoed his choice of deputy, and Secretary of State Tillerson has barely been heard from since he was appointed. What's your view of that? Is he weak?

ASHLEY TOWNSHEND: I think he is weak, and it's not too late for him to find a new source of strength - but the trends are not in the right direction.

As you say, the State Department is touted to be cut by 37 per cent under Trump's proposed budget initiatives. His employees within the State Department are not particularly favourably disposed towards him.

I think if you contrast it with the Defense Department, you have a Secretary that is an establishment figure, in Jim Mattis; he is very respected by both political appointees and career diplomats, and he is shaping up to have a lot of influence in this administration.

As he gets stronger, and as Defense gets stronger, I think State's chances also start to erode.

The role of the State Department is not only to speak to the American public and to diplomats privately, but is in many ways the mouthpiece of the US administration globally.

So it's very important that Tillerson and his department buy into that voice in the public debate. Many countries around the work - not least in Asia - look to the State Department for all of the soft power, diplomatic and in many cases, economic initiatives that are the reasons countries in this part of the world are attracted to Washington and want to retain a strong United States presence in Asia.

If he loses that voice, or if it's ceded solely to the Defense Department, the risk is that countries will turn off, they will define their own with the relationships with the United States and come to their own conclusions of what Trump will mean for the region, and this could only be bad for US policy down the track.

ELEANOR HALL: Ashley Townshend, thanks so much for joining us.

ASHLEY TOWNSHEND: Thanks Eleanor. Good to be with you.

ELEANOR HALL: That's Ashley Townshend, Research Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University, where he focuses on international security and strategic affairs in the Asia-Pacific.