By David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump plans to nominate former Air Force General David Stilwell to be the State Department’s top diplomat for East Asia, a post that has remained unfilled for more than a year despite major challenges in the region.
A White House statement on Wednesday said Trump had announced his intention to nominate Stilwell, a former career fighter pilot who speaks Korean, Chinese and some Japanese, to be assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
The nomination must be confirmed by the Senate, but experts said Stilwell would likely receive broad support from the chamber.
The post has remained unfilled since the previous incumbent, Daniel Russel, stepped down in April last year, in spite of a major crisis over North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and worsening relations and a trade war with China, the world’s No. 2 economy and Washington’s main rival in the region.
Stilwell retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2015 with the rank of brigadier general after 35 years of service.
The White House statement said he was currently director of the China Strategic Focus Group at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Headquarters in Hawaii and an adjunct senior fellow at the East West Center in Honolulu.
Stilwell joined the Air Force in 1980 as a Korean linguist and served in South Korea before earning degrees in Asian studies and the Chinese language.
He also served with the Air Force in Japan, as well in a senior Asia planning role at the Pentagon and as defense attache in Beijing from 2011 to 2013.
Russel welcomed Stilwell’s nomination.
“I have worked with Dave Stilwell and know him well. I’m glad that the President has now nominated an experienced Asia hand to this important position and hope the Senate will confirm him expeditiously,” he said in an email.
Trump’s former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, previously nominated Russel’s former deputy, Susan Thornton, for the post, but she was seen by administration hawks as too soft on China and her nomination never came to a vote in the Senate.
Eric Sayers, an Asia specialist and former Republican congressional staffer, said Stilwell would be welcomed by Republican Asia watchers and should also have good chemistry with the two other senior administration officials responsible for Asia, Matt Pottinger at the National Security Council and Randy Schriver at the Pentagon.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Peter Cooney)