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China-US relations

What to watch for in Tillerson’s China visit: North Korean crisis, Sino-US trade tensions

The US Secretary of State’s second official China trip will take place from Thursday to Sunday, paving the way for the US president’s inaugural visit

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 September, 2017, 8:04am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 October, 2017, 5:46pm

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will arrive in Beijing this week with a full agenda, in the midst of an escalating crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and missile weapons development and Sino-US trade tensions.

The diplomat’s second official visit to China will take place from Thursday to Sunday and pave the way for US President Donald Trump’s inaugural visit to Beijing in November.

Amid a difficult strategic landscape, here are some of the main points to watch for during Tillerson’s trip.

US Secretary of State Tillerson to visit China for talks over North Korean nuclear crisis

North Korea

Tensions on the Korean peninsula will undoubtedly play a primary role during the visit, given the ratcheting up in recent days of the rhetoric between North Korea and the US. Pyongyang has accused Trump of having “declared war” with his brashly worded tweet that stated that North Korea “won’t be around much longer”, dismissing leader Kim Jong-un as “Little Rocket Man.” Washington also imposed additional sanctions on the reclusive authoritarian regime on Tuesday, attempting to slow North Korea’s nuclear and military weapons programmes after its sixth and largest nuclear test earlier this month.

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Tillerson will likely repeat the need for China and the US to work together to restrain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and temper further escalation.

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Trump’s first state visit to China

Trump is expected to make his inaugural state visit to China in November, around the time he will attend multilateral summits in Southeast Asia. Tillerson’s visit will help lay the groundwork for this meeting, which has heightened importance given it follows the 19th Communist Party Congress, the key political gathering that reshuffles party leaders and sets policy direction for the next five years.

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“It makes it all the more sensitive in the sense that Trump is going to meet Xi Jinping for sure, and meet the new leadership that Xi Jinping has set up,” said Sow Keat Tok, a Chinese foreign relations expert at the University of Melbourne. “The Party Congress is on Washington’s radar, so part of [Tillerson’s] job is definitely to find out what’s going to happen.”

Deciphering US foreign policy

Contradictory voices on US foreign policy have been heard from Washington, with Trump sometimes undercutting statements made by other members of his administration, including Tillerson. Uncertainties about US stances have even forced North Korean officials to make sense of American policy by trying to meet with Republican-linked analysts in Washington, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday.

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Chinese officials may “have two minds about Tillerson,” initially expecting him to be bullish as secretary of state, but later seeing him as a more reasoned voice from the administration, according to Tok.

Beijing likely prefers dealing with Tillerson, even if it is “likely as confused” about US foreign policy, he said.

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Sino-US trade tensions

US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross met with Beijing officials on Monday, highlighting the US trade deficit with China and various trade frictions between the countries. Given these recent talks and Tillerson’s broader diplomatic focus, the secretary of state may focus on other issues in the Sino-US relationship during this particular trip, according to Tok.

But bilateral trade ties continue to loom large in the midst of US probes into Chinese imports and the latest investigation into Chinese intellectual property practices.

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Key regional issues

Tillerson’s visit may also touch on other regional issues such as territorial contentions in the South China Sea. The talks may be a conduit for more coordination on regionalisation ahead of the Southeast Asia regional summits in November that Trump also will be expected to attend.

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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers recently endorsed a proposal for negotiations for a code of conduct in the waters for the Asean summit in the Philippines in November.

Although tensions over the South China Sea have “somewhat faded into the background,” Tok said, the issue nonetheless remains one of the major concerns in a potential US-China conflict.