China-US relations

Don’t read too much into Tillerson’s choice of words in Beijing

US Secretary of State used Chinese diplomatic phrases in a statement, but that may not signal anything about the Trump administration’s intent

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 March, 2017, 8:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 March, 2017, 11:23pm

While in China during his inaugural visit to the Asia-Pacific region as US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive officer of oil behemoth ExxonMobil, used a certain set of Chinese diplomatic phrases in a statement before his meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi.

In the United States, a subset of Asia-Pacific analysts read this as a distressing sign that Tillerson – a novice in the world of foreign policy – was underbriefed and underprepared for the world of carefully telegraphed Chinese diplomatic signalling.

Tillerson said that the US-China relationship had been “a very positive relationship built on non-confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and always searching for win-win solutions”. His language nearly echoed verbatim the language that Chinese President Xi Jinping had delivered to former US President Barack Obama in 2014, at the White House.

In a sense, Tillerson’s language could be read as an endorsement of Xi’s central project in managing Washington-Beijing ties since he took over the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party – namely, that the United States should respect China’s sensitivities in the South China Sea, East China Sea and over other questions related to China’s so-called “core interests”, which additionally cover Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang and have broadened under Xi’s leadership.

Depending on which US analysts of the relationship with China one speaks to, impressions of Tillerson’s use of these terms are different. First, the Shanghai Communique of 1972 – one of the foundational bilateral documents that sets the baseline for contemporary bilateral US-China relations – mentions the phrase “mutual respect”, suggesting that Tillerson may have been intending to evoke this older formulation of US-China ties.

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This explanation only suffices partly in terms of US interests, however. The Obama administration, no doubt, was aware of this and, apart from a temporary embrace of Xi’s concept of a “new type of great power relations” in 2013 and early 2014, chose to deliberately avoid this formulation. The previous US administration understood that this formulation would have signalled acquiescence to China on certain core demands, including over its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.

By one token, while Tillerson’s use of this specific terminology in China may have betrayed a certain level of naivety about the terms of US-China relations in recent years, it’s not clear that the Chinese themselves would have any idea what to make of the US secretary of state’s choice of words.

Consider that as recently as three months ago, US-China ties were in a deeply uncertain place after Donald Trump, during the presidential transition, received a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. This event, without precedent, directly pushed up against one of China’s core interests and US-China ties showed few signs of advancement in the few weeks between President Trump’s inauguration and the eventual initial phone call between Xi and Trump after the US inauguration, in which the new US president acknowledged the United State’s one-China policy as previous presidents had.

It’s not clear that the Chinese themselves would have any idea what to make of the US secretary of state’s choice of words

Indeed, even if Tillerson took an amateurish step by evoking these weighty and deeply meaningful Chinese-origin diplomatic terms in Beijing, it’s unclear that Chinese diplomats would be wise to take this as a sign of an impending trend toward rapprochement by the Trump administration. Between the signals sent on Taiwan during the transition, broader rhetoric on trade, and threats to declare Beijing a currency manipulator, ample room remains for the Trump administration to deeply upset the status quo of US-China ties.

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In the end, Chinese interlocutors would be wise to remain cognizant of the flimsy evidence that Rex Tillerson exercises the traditional influence of a secretary of state. By all accounts, he remains a marginal figure in shaping the Trump administration’s foreign policy more broadly, which appears to be concentrated in the White House.

In the end, US-China ties appear to remain on unsteady ground. Despite Tillerson’s embrace of Chinese diplomatic phraseology in Beijing, Chinese policymakers would do well to remain wary of the Trump administration’s intentions.