WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Thursday confirmed former Air Force General David Stilwell to be the State Department’s top diplomat for East Asia, a post that had remained unfilled for more than two years despite major challenges in the region.
The 94-3 Senate vote to approve Stilwell as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs came nearly eight months after President Donald Trump announced his intention to nominate the former career fighter pilot, who speaks Korean, Chinese and some Japanese, for the job.
The post has been vacant since Daniel Russel stepped down in April 2017, 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 will also be faced with formulating a U.S. response to a crisis in the former British colony of Hong Kong resulting from a proposed extradition law by China.
Stilwell retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2015 with the rank of brigadier general after 35 years of service.
He has since served as director of the China Strategic Focus Group at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Headquarters in Hawaii and as 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.
Trump, at the urging of then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, had previously nominated Russel’s former deputy, Susan Thornton, for the assistant secretary’s post.
She was seen by administration hawks as being too soft in her approach to China and withdrew before the Senate could vote on whether to confirm her.
Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Leslie Adler and Bill Berkrot