Japan Institute for National Fundamentals

Speaking out

Yasushi Tomiyama

【#551(Special)】Expectation for New U.S. Diplomatic Team

Yasushi Tomiyama / 2018.10.24 (Wed)

October 22, 2018

     David Stilwell, a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general, was finally selected as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. As a strategy expert with a military background, Stilwell naturally has a reputation as a China hawk emphasizing alliances. He may become a point man at a working level with whom the Japanese government could coordinate policy without much difficulty.

An assistant secretary well versed in Asia
     Stilwell’s military profile indicates that he has had close ties to Asia. Stilwell entered the Air Force as a Korean linguist and earned a master’s degree in Asian studies and Chinese language at the University of Hawaii before taking his first overseas active duty assignment at the Kunsan Air Force Base in South Korea where he served as F-16 fighter pilot. He was assigned at Japan’s Misawa Air Base twice, serving as commander of the 35th Fighter Wing stationed at the base. Stilwell has worked as defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Meanwhile, he earned a master’s degree in strategic studies at the Air Command and Staff College and the U.S. Army War College respectively.
     His last military post was the deputy director for politico-military affairs for Asia at the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, being responsible for regional planning and policy. He supported the commanders of the U.S. Pacific Command (now Indo-Pacific Command) and U.S. Central Command and provided advice to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense.
     After retiring from the military in 2015, Stilwell became the director of the China Strategic Focus Group at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Headquarters and an adjunct senior fellow at the East-West Center, a government-affiliated think tank in Honolulu. He is proficient in Chinese and Korean and has limited capability in Japanese.
     Usually, a new U.S. administration completes the appointment of assistant secretaries responsible for policy planning and implementation within some six months from its inauguration. Unusually, however, the post of assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs was left vacant for as long as 21 months. Partly because human resources for political appointees were limited after experts who should have entered a Republican administration refused to support Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, many retired military officers have been appointed to fill key posts.

A China hawk emphasizing alliances
     U.S. Asian diplomacy for which Stilwell is responsible can lose no time. One of the urgent challenges is how to manage U.S.-China relations at a time the U. S. and China are braced for struggling for supremacy in the 21st century. Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin quoted experts as describing Stilwell a China hawk who takes a strategic view of competition with China and has a strong sense for the role of allies and the unique position of Taiwan.
     Another key challenge is to pave the way for North Korea’s denuclearization. U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris, who took up the Seoul post in July, was Stilwell’s boss when Harris served as CINCPAC between 2015 and 2018. I would expect that Stilwell and Harris who know each other well will monitor and check South Korean President Moon Jae In, who is excessively eager to improve relations with the North.

Yasushi Tomiyama is Senior Fellow and Planning Committee Member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals.