China-US relations

With Tillerson gone, who is there left for China to talk to in the Trump White House?

Beijing says it’s willing to work with new US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo amid concerns Washington could be taking a more hawkish approach

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2018, 1:16pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2018, 11:30pm

China says it is willing to work with new US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to properly manage Sino-US relations, amid concerns that his appointment might mean Washington is taking a more hawkish approach towards China.

The remarks by Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang came as diplomatic observers warned that the departure of Rex Tillerson as the top US diplomat will mean even tougher times for Sino-US relations and make it harder for China to forge contacts with Washington.

“I hope the personnel reshuffle will not have an impact on Sino-US relations or on major cooperation between China and the US,” Lu said in a daily press briefing in Beijing on Wednesday.

“China is willing to work with the new secretary of state in upholding the consensus between the two countries’ leaders … to focus on cooperation and manage our differences, and continue to push forward Sino-US relations on a steady and healthy basis,” he said.

Lu added that the US should continue its initiatives on major international issues, including having direct talks with North Korea and upholding the Iran nuclear deal.

US President Donald Trump ousted Tillerson on Tuesday, naming Pompeo as his replacement. Pompeo said in January that China was as “big a threat to the US” as Russia because of Chinese infiltration of schools and hospitals.

Pompeo’s appointment has ignited concerns that the Trump administration could take a more hawkish approach towards Beijing, a relationship already riddled with trade and security disputes.

Analysts said Tillerson’s sudden departure might be followed by those of other aides Trump has butted heads with, including national security adviser HR McMaster.

The rotating cast of figures has made it difficult for Chinese diplomats to know who to contact, with some aides in one day and out the door the next.

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Zhang Zhexin, research fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said the appointment of Pompeo, a member of the ultra-conservative “tea party”, as secretary of state meant a hardliner would be at the forefront of US foreign policy. 

“This is definitely not good news for Sino-US relations,” Zhang said. “Once Pompeo is confirmed, it could cause a further deterioration in trade disputes between the two countries, and the tensions could extend into the security and diplomatic arenas. Pompeo has consistently held a very conservative position, and is likely to be even tougher on Sino-US relations than Trump, which to a certain extent will expand conflict between China and the US.”

Tillerson is seen as a moderate official compared with other figures in the Trump administration. As former head of ExxonMobil, he had established ties with Chinese oil company senior executives, which Beijing had once deemed useful in building rapport.

Former Sinopec chairman Fu Chengyu said earlier that Tillerson, whom he met from time to time between 2011 to 2015, was someone “who tries to understand others” and “will try to sit down” to resolve problems.

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In the last year, Beijing has scrambled to establish points of contact in the White House, including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. But the efforts have done little to sway Sino-US ties in Beijing’s favour.

China sent top diplomat Yang Jiechi and President Xi Jinping’s most senior economic adviser, Liu He, to Washington last month to tackle trade tensions, but neither yielded a breakthrough, leaving Beijing wondering just who it should talk to.

Tang Xiaosong, an international relations expert at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, said Tillerson’s departure would eliminate the biggest obstacle to Trump’s “uncontrollable policy rationale”. 

“Policy ... in the Trump administration will be more volatile and driven by Trump’s personal preference,” Tang said. 

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Boston College political science professor Robert Ross said he was less confident of seeing a “stable, goal-oriented foreign policy” from the US after Tillerson’s removal.

“[Pompeo] is inclined to be more supportive of the president’s instincts and his policy preferences, and this can have a less moderating impact, and this could indeed reinforce the president’s worst instincts,” Ross said. “The president will revert to his campaign style of expressing unhappiness with China.”

But Shi Yinhong, director of Renmin University’s Centre on American Studies and an adviser to the State Council, said changing the secretary of state would not reset Sino-US ties. 

Shi said Tillerson never played a decisive role in Washington’s China policy given that the only two people who could really steer bilateral ties were Xi and Trump. 

“This might mean more Chinese officials such as Yang Jiechi will have to become familiar with Pompeo but the main bilateral tone, including intensifying conflicts, between the two nations will not be changed,” Shi said. 

Additional reporting by Mimi Lau