Asia is on Rex Tillerson's mind, assures the departing senior diplomat Daniel Russel

Daniel Russel will continue to support the United States' foreign policy for Asia Pacific as Diplomat in Residence and Senior Fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
Daniel Russel will continue to support the United States' foreign policy for Asia Pacific as Diplomat in Residence and Senior Fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute.PHOTO: ST FILE

 WASHINGTON - For years the top US diplomat for Asia Pacific, Mr Daniel Russel is leaving his Assistant Secretary of State position next week, but will remain engaged in the region.

The 63-year-old is moving to New York where he will be Diplomat in Residence and Senior Fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI), where he will continue to support the United States' foreign policy for the region.

 Mr Russel has been on the job for three years and eight months - after a previous stint of four and a half years at the White House working on Asia policy. As such, he has been the face of America's "rebalance" to Asia - which has been widely seen as potentially in jeopardy or at best uncertain under the Donald Trump administration.

 But at a farewell round table on Tuesday (March 7) with journalists from Asia Pacific covering the US, Mr Russel was optimistic about the US policy on Asia Pacific and sought to allay uncertainties about dealing with his new boss, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of global oil giant ExxonMobil.  

 "America's contribution to the economic life as well as the security and stability of the region, as well as the application and acceptance of universal principles of human rights and rule of law, are substantial," he said. "I believe that will continue."

 "Everything that I have seen from Secretary Rex Tillerson, President Trump and from the national security team thus far, convinces me that the policy decisions going forward will continue to be made on the basis of American's long-term interests, with due consideration to the equities of our allies (and)… our partners, our neighbours" he added.

 "The US benefits directly from a thriving economy and stability in Asia. There's every reason to expect that the policies of this administration, like those of the one that preceded it, will be deeply rooted."

 Mr Russel did acknowledge that it was too soon to know what the full contours of the US approach to the Asia Pacific region will be for the Trump administration. But on the question of relations with China, he noted that "there is a willingness on both sides to move quickly to establish good lines of communication."

 "Bringing a fresh pair of eyes to the problem set, harnessing the tremendous experience the President has had as a businessman and the Secretary of State has had as the CEO of a huge global company.. as well as getting to know leaders without any baggage, all these create opportunities" he maintained.

While the political situations in different countries are complex and their bilateral relations with the US may have been choppy, "fundamentally our bilateral relations and our overall relationship with Asean is healthy, resilient and productive," he said.

 Mr Russel said he had given a "very substantive in-person briefing" to Mr Tillerson when he assumed office.

"What I recognised immediately is that perhaps as a consequence of 10 years as the CEO of one of the biggest corporations in the world, Rex Tillerson didn't need Danny Russel to tell him Asia was important," he joked.

 "I feel confident the Trump administration will remain as focused on economic and security issues and on sustaining America's positive influence and constructive leadership as the Obama administration did. But they will do it in their own way and it will be shaped in part by the broad set of priorities that the president has brought to the oval office."

 And addressing a question on China's concerns regarding the deployment this week of the US's Thaad anti-missile defence system in South Korea, Mr Russel said it had been driven solely by North Korea's threat to attack US installations in the country with ballistic missiles.

 "The Thaad system is designed to protect against an attack, not to launch an attack or to compromise the security interests of any country let alone China. We fully expect China to always act to safeguard its security interests, but China better give us and give the Republic of Korea the same right."

 "No one is threatening China with nuclear armed ballistic missiles. Somebody is threatening the US and Japan and the Republic of Korea with nuclear armed missiles.

"That's the threat we're responding to. We think China's objections, if in fact they are based on China's security concerns, are unwarranted," he said.