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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, right, is greeted by officials as he arrives at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, China, Saturday, March 18, 2017.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, right, is greeted by officials as he arrives at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, China, Saturday, March 18, 2017. (Mark Schiefelbein, Pool)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is reconsidering his attendance at an coming NATO meeting in Brussels after criticism that his absence could be viewed as a slight to the 28-nation military pact.

“I can say that we’ve offered alternative dates that the secretary could attend, and those are now being considered,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Tuesday.

The alternative dates were provided after it emerged that Tillerson was planning to skip the April 5-6 regular meeting of NATO foreign ministers.

Instead, Tillerson was slated to remain in the U.S. for meetings with visting leaders from China, followed by a trip to Moscow.

NATO apparently sought alternative dates in an effort to accommodate Tillerson’s schedule without success.

“I wouldn’t say we rebuffed the offers,” Toner said. “It was simply, as we were evaluating and coming together with the secretary’s schedule, it didn’t fit, the original dates.”

NATO must now review Tillerson’s offer of new dates, which requires the consensus of all 28 members.

If Tillerson skips the meeting it would be an unusual break with precedent. Although the biannual ministerials yield limited concrete results and serve more as a venue for restating NATO solidarity, the last time a secretary of state missed a meeting was in 2003.

With Tillerson slated for talks with adversaries Russia and China, the initial decision to bypass Brussels fueled concerns about the U.S.’s commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance — an organization President Donald Trump dismissed as “obsolete.”

Toner downplayed such concerns.

“The United States remains 100 percent committed to NATO. Trump said this in his very first address to a joint session of Congress,” Toner said. “He said our commitment to NATO is unwavering and it remains so.”

On Tuesday, the White House announced that Trump would attend NATO’s major summit on May 25.

Meanwhile, Tillerson is backing the bid of the small Balkan nation of Montenegro to join NATO. Last week, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., blocked the ratification of the country’s membership, which requires Senate approval.

Tillerson, in a letter to the Senate, endorsed Montenegro’s inclusion in NATO.

“Montenegro’s participation in the May NATO summit as full member, not as an observer, will send a strong signal of trans-Atlantic unity,” Tillerson wrote in a letter obtained by Reuters.

The legislatures of 25 NATO countries have already ratified Montenegro’s accession.

vandiver.john@stripes.com Twitter: @john_vandiver

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