Rex Tillerson means business and it’s fine with Russia and China


M. K. Bhadrakumar

Jan. 24, 2016


Rex Tillerson, US President Donald Trump’s nominee as state secretary, has narrowly won confirmation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – 11 senators in favor and 10 against. The split is on party lines and the clincher came on Monday when Republican senator Marco Polo (who regarded Russian President Vladimir Putin to be a ‘war criminal’ and vainly insisted that Tillerson agreed with him) fell in line at the eleventh hour.

The confirmation now goes for voting next week, by the full 100-member senate where Republicans have 52 votes, and it’s a mere formality.

Tillerson had appeared out of the blue as a ‘wild card diplomat’, to borrow BBC’s critique of him. His links to the Kremlin and certain claim to friendship with Putin, had raised hackles in the US establishment and among America’s political class, apart from the controversial business practices of ExxonMobil, which he headed.

In a nutshell, the perception has been that he’d be instrumental in turning around the US-Russia relations from deep chill, and that was what prompted Trump to zero in on him. However, that is only part of the story. The point is, Tillerson is a gifted diplomat in his own way too, who has extensively cultivated world statesmen, and Trump surely sees it as an asset.

More to the point, Tillerson was recommended to Trump by Henry Kissinger as the optimal choice as America’s top diplomat. (Interestingly, Kissinger also recommended his former assistant K.T. McFarland as soon-to-be deputy to National Security Advisor Gen Mikhail Flynn, and there’s speculation that Thomas Graham, managing director at Kissinger Associates, might be Trump’s ambassador to Moscow.)

By the way, the grapevine is that Kissinger has emerged as Trump’s informal foreign policy advisor. This becomes important because Kissinger’s world view attaches great importance to the role of Russia and China in the emerging world order, and he believes in the US robustly and comprehensively engaging these two big powers to create a new global equilibrium. (See my earlier blogs Russia honours American icon on US election eve and China seems pleased with tidings from Trump.)

To be sure, Tillerson’s senate confirmation as the next US secretary of state will be closely watched in Moscow and Beijing. ExxonMobil has been active in both Russia and China from the mid-nineties. Put differently, Tillerson’s extensive dealings with China also come into play, although they have been below the radar in the recent weeks. (See here a Wall Street Journal report of 2009 vintage, titled Exxon, Prospecting for Growth, Flips the Switch on Chinese Plant.) According to ExxonMobil website: “ExxonMobil’s history in China dates back to the 1890s, when Standard Oil, the predecessor of ExxonMobil, began marketing kerosene in China.” The company has significant operations in China including exploration, gas and fuels marketing, lubricants sales and services, chemicals and power generation, including a $4.5 billion refining and petrochemical complex in Fujian Province. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the company is planning to opening 750 gas stations in China. The company has some 1300 employees in China, 300 of which are in Hong Kong, the rest on the Mainland.

Yet, Tillerson made critical remarks about both Russia and China during the senate hearings recently. It stands to reason that much of that would have been grandstanding with a view to secure senate confirmation. Interestingly enough, the Chinese and Russian perspectives have tended to gloss over Tillerson’s critical remarks as a passing episode in the enactment of a complex political game between Trump and the US Congressmen. (Trump is planning a ‘retreat’ with Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania on Thursday.)

To my mind, there is a strong likelihood that Trump administration will put accent on developing business ties with Russia and China. A business-driven relationship with the two countries meshes with Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda, too.

The bottom line is that Tillerson cannot be presiding over a drift toward confrontation with Russia or China in the US policies. No matter the schism within the American elites, which is playing out in full view of the world community and is bringing disrepute to the US’ global standing, we may generally expect a less confrontational and more political attitude toward Russia and China on the part of the Trump administration.

The Russian elites seem to sense this. Writing in Izvestiya newspaper in the weekend, the influential Kremlin politician Leonid Slutsky, head of the Duma’s international affairs committee, voiced such an opinion:

  • It would be naive to expect an instant warming between Washington and Moscow. Trump himself is in fact not a pro-Russian politician at all, but a pro-American one, and he will defend the interests of his own country. Moreover, extremely pragmatically… here there is another issue – the extent to which the new president and his team will be able to surmount the overt anti-Russian hysteria and Russophobia in the American political establishment that has developed in recent years.
  • And against this backdrop, the statements made on the margins of the World Economic Forum in Davos by Anthony Scaramucci, an adviser to the American president-elect on cooperation with business, sound optimistic. In his opinion, Russia and America will be able to improve their relationship in a year, and the anti-Russian sanctions… were not the best decision. So, Russia and America should sit down at the negotiating table in order to work out an alternative. The Trump administration has no objection to American companies investing in the Russian economy, Scaramucci then added.

The Chinese commentaries also seem to be anticipating such a trajectory in the US foreign policies under Trump’s watch. A feature article today in People’s Daily showcased China as the unique partner for Trump’s $1 trillion plan for developing infrastructure all across the US to accelerate economic growth and increase productivity gains.

Three days ago, a Xinhua commentary had disclosed that the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma “in his latest meeting with Trump” offered that his company, the e-commerce giant Alibaba, can create one million US jobs “by enabling small businesses and farmers to sell U.S. goods to China and Asian consumers.”

Of course, there is no one better qualified to lead a business-driven US foreign policy than Tillerson. He is head and shoulders above the warrior-like other contenders for the job of state secretary who walked in and out of the Trump Hqs through the month of November – Mitt Romney, John Bolton, David Petraeus, Bob Corker and Rudi Giuliani, amongst others. Kissinger gave thoughtful advice to Trump.


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