Tillerson’s fence-mending trip to China ends in push for common ground
Xi Jinping and Rex Tillerson steer clear of hot-button issues but meeting in Beijing is seen as a missed opportunity for US to press China on trade
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrapped up his first official visit to China on Sunday on a positive note – agreeing with President Xi Jinping to build constructive bilateral ties while managing trickier, divisive issues.
According to state media, Xi and Tillerson “exchanged warm words” during their meeting at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People yesterday, pledging to improve understanding and cooperation on the international stage.
Diplomatic observers said Tillerson’s fence-mending trip was “better than expected” and would pave the way for the first meeting between Xi and US President Donald Trump in the United States as early as next month.
The former oil executive’s maiden official Asian tour also sent a reassuring signal for Sino-US ties after their roller-coaster ride over sensitive strategic, security and trade differences since Trump’s election late last year.
“You have made a lot of active efforts to achieve a smooth transition in our relationship under the new era,” Xi told Tillerson.
“And I also appreciate your comment that the China-US relationship can only be defined by cooperation and friendship.”
Xi said the two countries could be good partners, and as long as both sides maintained this understanding, ties would proceed “in the right way”.
Xi said he and Trump had maintained good communications through telephone conversations and messages and reached a consensus to improve exchanges.
Tillerson said Trump looked forward to visiting China and to improving understanding with Xi.
Beijing has been unnerved by Trump’s questioning of Washington’s decades-old one-China policy over Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own. It has also been rattled by the US president’s repeated threats to take on China over trade practices.
Just before his arrival in Beijing, Tillerson raised the temperature further with a stark warning of a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea amid heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula. Trump also accused China on Friday of having done little to contain North Korea, China’s communist ally.
Xi’s meeting with Tillerson followed North Korea’s announcement yesterday that it had carried out a rocket engine test of “historical significance”.
But both sides appeared to brush off the sensitive issue, with Tillerson refraining from making strong comments on Pyongyang during his two days in the Chinese capital.
“We should properly handle and manage sensitive issues to promote the healthy and stable development of the Sino-US relationship,” Xi said.
Tillerson said Trump placed a “very high value on the communications that have already occurred” with Xi.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said Tillerson played safe to pave the way for a Trump-Xi summit. “This suits the Chinese, as both Trump and Xi are the kind of leaders who try to personalise their policies and relationships with the other great powers. I doubt that Tillerson had the authority to go beyond whatever Trump wants,” he said.
Tao Wenzhao, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Beijing was expected to be pleased by Tillerson’s repeated suggestion that ties between the two countries should be guided by “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”, the pillars of Xi’s pet concept of “a new model of major power relations”. Tillerson did not explicitly refer to the concept but verbalised its components in his talks with Xi, State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
“It is very positive and reassuring for Beijing despite lingering doubts [about Trump] and it shows both sides indeed have reached some crucial consensus on how the relationship should be developed,” Tao said.
Beijing has repeatedly pushed Washington to accept the “new model” concept but to no avail.
Huang Jing, from the National University of Singapore, said it was still too early for Beijing to hail Tillerson’s references a victory because both sides appeared to differ on “the connotation of those components”.
“It [also] appeared to be a lost opportunity for Beijing to exert greater pressure on Trump over issues such as globalisation, free trade and multilateralism that Xi has championed internationally over the past year,” Huang said.
Bonnie Glaser, of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said on Twitter that it was a mistake for the Trump administration to endorse Beijing’s concept of the so-called new concept of great power relations.