Powell's Trip to Northeast Asia: Reaffirming Alliances in Tokyo and Seoul and Talking Straight in Beijing

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Powell's Trip to Northeast Asia: Reaffirming Alliances in Tokyo and Seoul and Talking Straight in Beijing

October 21, 2004 4 min read

Authors: John Tkacik and Balbina Hwang

During his October 22 to 26 visit to Japan, China, and South Korea, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will likely seek to bolster regional cooperation on confronting North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Since last year, the United States-joined by China, South Korea, Japan and Russia in the Six-Party talks-has sought to bring North Korea to the negotiating table and to convince the country to abandon its illicit nuclear weapons program. The talks, which have produced little concrete progress so far, were to resume in September but are on hold due to Pyongyang's reluctance to meet before the U.S. presidential elections. On this visit to Asia, Secretary Powell may still achieve some progress on the multilateral talks, though other issues are likely to arise.



The two main issues Powell will discuss in his talks with Japanese leaders in Tokyo are the search for a diplomatic solution to North Korea's nuclear ambitions and realignment of the U.S. forces in Japan. Secretary Powell will have the opportunity to reaffirm the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance, which has developed into a global partnership in recent years. Powell could highlight any of several major Japanese contributions to that partnership:

  • Japan's strong, consistent stance against Pyongyang's efforts to pursue illicit nuclear weapon development;
  • Japan's unswerving support for Iraqi reconstruction, including pledges for over $5 billion and its dispatch of 1,000 Self-Defense Force personnel to Iraq;
  • Japan's strong stance in the global war on terrorism, including participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to halt the international transfer of dangerous arms and materials to terrorist organizations and rogue states; and
  • Japan's continued cooperation missile defense.


In Beijing, Secretary Powell will likely discuss North Korea's nuclear weapons program and the tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Powell will no doubt relay Tokyo's deepening concern about Chinese oil exploration in Japanese waters. Powell should expect Chinese leaders to speak bluntly to him, and if there is to be clarity in this dialogue, Powell needs to speak plainly in return. Several things need to be said:

  • Warn Beijing that its continuing, vocal, and unqualified support for North Korea's quest for a nuclear weapons capability belies Beijing's claims that China values a denuclearized Korean peninsula;
  • Repeat that Washington's "One China Policy" differs from Beijing's "One China Principle" and must not be misinterpreted as an acknowledgement that Beijing has any right in international law or otherwise to use force against Taiwan;
  • As the State Department has done in the past, call on China to "renounce the use of force regarding Taiwan" and urge both sides to "pursue dialogue as soon as possible through any available channels, without preconditions" and "on an equal basis;"
  • To that end, he might point out that Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's October 10 National Day speech offers, as State Department spokesman Richard Boucher put it, "an opportunity here to get back to a cross-strait dialogue that should be looked at by all the parties;"
  • Remind Beijing leaders that the level of U.S. arms sales and military exchanges with Taiwan are linked to the level of threat that China poses to Taiwan; and
  • Caution China not to test America's commitment to the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty with illegal incursions into Japanese waters.

South Korea

North Korea's nuclear program will likely dominate Secretary Powell's talks with South Korean leaders in Seoul. In addition, Powell will have to contend with uneasiness over plans to restructure U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula. Unlike in Japan, the strength and durability of the U.S.-ROK alliance has come into question in recent years. Thus, Powell should reiterate the value of the bilateral relationship and emphasize areas of cooperation:

  • Laud Seoul's dispatch of over 3,600 troops to Iraq, which makes South Korea the second largest U.S. coalition partner after Great Britain;
  • Reconfirm U.S. support for the bilateral alliance, including America's commitment to the defense of South Korea in the form of continued U.S. troop presence on the Korean peninsula;
  • Also, reiterate that the reduction and relocation of troops does not undermine the deterrence against North Korean aggression or reduce the capabilities of American defenses;
  • State clearly that the United States does not oppose reconciliation between the two Koreas or want to interfere with this process.
  • Still, make clear as well that because North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons is a real threat that jeopardizes not only the alliance partners but also regional neighbors, Seoul should maintain a more consistent stance against Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions; and
  • Emphasize the continued importance of U.S.-ROK economic relations, and encourage further cooperation through a possible Free Trade Agreement.


While the world's attention is focused on the U.S. presidential race and on Iraq, Secretary Powell's Northeast Asia trip deserves some notice as well. His visits to three capitals will play an important and lasting role in smoothing out disagreements and tensions in the region by garnering continued support and cooperation to resolve the biggest threats to stability and peace in the region-North Korea's nuclear programs and China-Taiwan relations.

Balbina Y. Hwang is Policy Analyst and John J. Tkacik, Jr., is Research Fellow in China Policy, in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.


John Tkacik

Former Senior Research Fellow

Balbina Hwang
Balbina Hwang

Former Senior Policy Analyst