US ‘plays China cards’ to score points on trade and North Korea tests
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has warned Beijing that it must work with Washington to stop bilateral tensions flaring into “open conflict” as divisions widen over North Korea’s nuclear provocations.
Tillerson’s remarks on Tuesday came amid reports that US President Donald Trump was about to announce the launch of an investigation into what he considers China’s unfair trade practices.
Observers said the embattled US administration was again playing the China card to score diplomatic points and distract from domestic concerns.
Tensions between the world’s two biggest economies have built since North Korea’s launched its second intercontinental ballistic missile test in a month on Friday night. The test triggered an anti-China Twitter tirade from Trump, who claimed China had done nothing to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions while benefiting from “hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade”.
In Washington on Tuesday, Tillerson said bilateral ties with China had reached a “pivot point”, raising the question of how to define the US-China relationship for the next 50 years after “a long period of no conflict”.
“[W]here we have differences – in the South China Sea, and we have some trading differences that need to be addressed – can we work through those differences in a way without it leading to open conflict and find the solutions that are necessary to serve us both?” he said.
But unlike Trump, Tillerson continued to appeal for Beijing’s help to bring Kim Jong-un’s unruly regime in Pyongyang into line.
“I think it’s important that everyone understand that North Korea does not define the relationship with China,” he said. “We’ve been very clear with the Chinese we certainly don’t blame the Chinese for the situation in North Korea. Only the North Koreans are to blame for this situation.”
Analysts said that despite Trump’s frustration over Beijing’s resistance to tougher sanctions against Pyongyang, the chances of a major conflict between China and the US over trade and other thorny issues remained slim.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said Tillerson was one of the few “adults” in the White House and was trying to send “a friendly alert” to the Chinese leadership.
“I see him as appealing to the Chinese to help him to keep this single most important bilateral relationship on an even kneel,” he said.
“He is close enough to Trump to know how the relationship with China can change quickly once the volatile president decides to do something. He is probably seeing Trump getting impatient, which increases substantially the risk of him deciding to do something that Tillerson may feel unwise.”
Citing an unnamed Trump administration official, Reuters reported on Wednesday that Trump was considering encouraging US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, a China hawk, to investigate Chinese trade practices under a section of the Trade Act that would authorise Trump to impose punitive import tariffs and other sanctions if formal talks with China failed.
Washington, which has failed to make much headway in narrowing the trade deficit with Beijing, has a long list of grievances about China on trade, including accusations of steel dumping and theft of US intellectual property.
Yuan Zheng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of American Studies, said the US could not afford to engage in the kind of open conflict that Tillerson warned of.
“Trump cannot afford to risk relations with China, and he clearly knows that sanctioning China on trade is not going to achieve the goal of ultimately piling pressure on North Korea. He is only doing so because he is obviously facing huge internal pressure from the Republicans, who would hope to see him toughen up in these relations,” he said.
Lu Xiang, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that while Trump was keen to take action to cut the US’ trade deficit with major trading partners, Pyongyang was a central reason for the move.
“The possible investigation of China’s trade practices is ... aimed at adding pressure on China to do more to help the US resolve North Korea’s nuclear power pursuit,” Lu said.
But while it had to prepare for the worst, China also needed to find ways to solve the trade dispute, he said.
Huang Jing, from the National University of Singapore, said Tillerson’s tough remarks on China were part of Washington’s usual tactics to get a better deal with Beijing on a broad range of geopolitical and bilateral irritants, including North Korea’s nuclear threats.
“Tillerson is absolutely right to say that bilateral ties have arrived at a historical juncture because whether Trump is genuinely interested in cooperation or simply wants to stir up trouble to divert domestic attention, the US leader always needs to play the China card to reassure his supporters and allies and seek a grand bargain with Beijing,” he said.
Additional reporting by Kinling Lo