The last time that Rex Tillerson was making headlines in China’s media he was being told to prepare for war, after likening the country’s island-building programme in the South China Sea to “Russia’s taking of Crimea”.
“Tillerson had better bone up on nuclear power strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories,” threatened the Global Times, never one to back down when Chinese honour is at stake.
But the mood was different as the American Secretary of State made his final stop on his first official trip to Asia, a six-day tour that included visits to Japan and South Korea.
The official account of his meetings in Beijing on Sunday sounded stilted, including President Xi Jinping’s retelling of his conversation with Tillerson.
“You said that China-US relations can only be friendly. I express my appreciation for this,” the Chinese leader offered in a summing-up that also made clear that “cooperation is the only correct choice for us both”.
Tillerson then joined Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a news conference in which the message was that ties between the two countries were guided by “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”.
‘Mutual respect’ is a favourite term for Chinese diplomats and is commonly employed to highlight that each country should respect the other’s ‘core interests’.
In Beijing that is shorthand for defending China’s sovereign claims to places like Taiwan and rebutting foreign criticism of its activities in disputed waters in the South China Sea. Tillerson had said during his confirmation hearings that the Chinese should be denied access to the islands (the ones it has been fortifying in contested areas) but the two sides chose to make no mention of such unpleasantness on Sunday.
Indeed, the Chinese press professed its pleasure at Tillerson’s ‘win-win’ mentality, delighted that he had mentioned the principle twice during his trip.
“During former President Barack Obama’s term, no record of Washington proactively mentioning it can be found in the media,” noted the formerly furious Global Times.
Sections of the American media were much less impressed that Tillerson had resorted to such catchphrases, including Ely Ratner – a former deputy national security adviser to Joe Biden – who berated him for parroting Chinese government “platitudes and propaganda”.
That’s not to say that Tillerson didn’t speak more plainly behind the scenes, and the New York Times has suggested that this was especially the case on North Korea, where he warned his counterparts that he would bolster American missile defences further if the Chinese didn’t do more to rein in the renegade regime.
Tillerson was also expected to raise the prospect of financial penalties on Chinese companies and banks that do business with the North Koreans.
Before he arrived in Beijing the Global Times had predicted that Tillerson would air these views and it resented the idea that he might try to dump “all the burden” of solving the North Korean nuclear issue onto his hosts. “But that way, China and North Korea will become enemies, further complicating the conflict,” it complained. “The North Korean nuclear issue is caused by the Washington-Pyongyang confrontation, to which China has no obligation to shoulder all the responsibilities.”
That’s not the view back at the White House, and right on cue, Trump fired off a tweet chastisting the Chinese for not doing more to pressure Pyongyang.
“North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years,” he claimed. “China has done little to help!”
Tillerson admitted that he hadn’t been warned about the tweet but he said that the American message to the Chinese is a consistent one: they have to do more to constrain Kim Jong-un.
He also intimated that a military strike was now a possibility, following his comment that “all options are on the table” during his stopover in Seoul. On the contrary, China wants a new approach based around the revival of the long-defunct six-party talks and an end to joint military exercises between the South Koreans and the Americans. In the meantime Pyongyang’s enfant terrible yet again made his presence felt, conducting another missile test, this one timed to coincide with Tillerson sitting down with Xi.
That said, Beijing today seems not only worried about the unpredictable Kim but equally is fixated on figuring out the leader of the free world, who has unleashed a torrent of anti-Chinese rhetoric over the last 18 months, branding China as a currency cheat, accusing it of “raping” the United States in trade terms, and pledging punitive tariffs in response.
In office Trump has taken a relatively hands-off approach to Sino-US relations, however, except for a highly combustible hint earlier this year that he was considering an end to America’s endorsement of the One China policy (see WiC349).
After a series of suggestions that he was going to disown the longstanding commitment, the Chinese were similarly mystified when Trump suddenly reaffirmed the status quo during a phone conversation with Xi in February.
Xi may want a more formal undertaking during his trip to Florida next month, although this would sit awkwardly with speculation that Trump is about to approve a huge shipment of arms to the Taiwanese previously held up by his predecessor’s administration.
At best this is a case of mixed messages but WiC suspects a more likely suggestion is that Trump has no desire to be pinned down in policy terms and that he enjoys wrong footing the Chinese with his Twitter tirades. Although Tillerson was careful to avoid anything contentious during his brief stay in Beijing, there is a sense that Trump’s behaviour has rattled China’s foreign policy establishment, which hasn’t worked out how best to make its views known in Washington, the Financial Times suggests.
“One Western diplomat said he was cornered at an event recently by a previously elusive Chinese counterpart who asked, ‘How do you deal with Trump? Should we be talking to Pence?’” the newspaper reported.
Possibly disingenuously Tillerson made the point on Sunday that there will be a lot more clarity when the two presidents meet face-to-face next month to discuss the interests of their respective governments.
“That will define the relationship,” he predicted. “There’s nothing to be negotiated at this point until we have a clear understanding of their priorities and they have a clear understanding of ours.”
Tillerson also told Xi during the meeting at the Great Hall of the People that Trump places a “very high value on the communications that have already occurred” between the two men and that he looks forward to improving their understanding with a potential future visit.
The Chinese could be forgiven for wondering if Trump might have been talking more about his barbs on social media than his more conciliatory telephone conversation with the country’s president. But China Daily agrees that next month’s summit (date still to be confirmed) could be significant, following Chinese anger at the deployment of the THAAD missile shield (see WiC357) and concern at the reports of American arms sales to the Taiwanese. Such developments highlight the “imperative need for ironing out bilateral ties ruffled repeatedly by the disruptive, sometimes confusing, postures of the recently inaugurated Trump team,” the newspaper urged. “Clearly, the two leaders still have plenty to straighten out when they meet.”
The Financial Times points out that Xi’s priority will be to ensure that Trump doesn’t do anything to destabilise the relationship ahead of the China’s Party Congress towards the end of this year (where Xi will consolidate his power in the Standing Committee). Trump, being at heart a negotiator of deals, will likely realise that his leverage in this six-month window will be maximised and will diminish after the Congress is over. It’s a safe bet that he’ll be looking for headline-grabbing concessions or else will threaten the sort of drama Xi is keen to avoid.
He might even be following the same playbook as Richard Nixon, who felt his unpredictability was a unique asset in foreign policy. As the former US president told his chief of staff: “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
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