Chinese President Xi Jinping meets US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter
Chinese President Xi Jinping meets US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter

For all his tough talk in Tokyo and Seoul, Rex Tillerson adopted a remarkably soft tone when he met China’s president and officials in Beijing during the last stop of his first Asian tour as US secretary of state last week.

As it came at a time of heightened regional tensions due to Pyongyang’s latest bellicose actions, including four missile launches at the beginning of the month, his Asia trip was dominated by North Korea’s missile and nuclear program.

At a joint press conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on March 16 in Tokyo, the first stop of his maiden Asia outing, America’s new top diplomat called for a new approach toward Pyongyang because the diplomatic and other efforts to disarm North Korea over the past 20 years had failed.

Speaking in Seoul a day later, he was more explicit, stating that the US would consider “all options”, including pre-emptive military action, to counter the Kim Jong-un regime’s nuclear and missile threat.

Moreover, the former ExxonMobil boss publicly criticized China’s “punitive actions against South Korea” for its decision to host a US-operated missile system, THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), which is “purely defensive in nature”. He called such retaliation “unnecessary” and “troubling”, stressing that “it is not the way for a regional power to help resolve what is a serious threat to everyone”.

Hours after Tillerson’s press conference in Seoul, US President Donald Trump tweeted: “North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years. China has done little to help!”

Given his offensive comments in Japan and South Korea, America’s two key regional allies, coupled with his boss’s latest criticism of China, North Korea’s main ally, it was expected that Tillerson would go to Beijing with a similar tough message.

However, when arriving in Beijing, the 64-year-old former oil executive, with no previous experience as a diplomat, swiftly toned down his rhetoric.

His remarks before his meetings with Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi and President Xi Jinping on Saturday and Sunday respectively did not mention North Korea or any thorny issues in US-China relations.

Most tellingly, in his statements both before and after his talk with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on Saturday, Tillerson used Chinese catchwords to describe US-China relations. China’s state media also approvingly noted that in his meetings with Xi and Wang, Tillerson said the US would like to develop the relationship with China based on “the spirit of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”.

No conflict or confrontation, mutual respect, including for each other’s core interests, and mutually beneficial cooperation are the three core components of the so-called “new model of major-country relations” officially proposed by Xi at his Sunnylands summit with then-US president Barack Obama in 2013.

At their meeting in Beijing in 2014, the Chinese leader told Obama: “China is ready to work with the United States to make efforts in a number of priority areas and putting into effect such principles.”

However, Obama did not adhere to Xi’s proposal. There were a number of reasons behind his nonchalance. Chief among these was Beijing’s murky definition and strict pursuit of its “core interests”. These include a wide range of issues that the Communist leadership in Beijing regards as of vital national interest, such as Taiwan and Tibet, which it wants the US to stay away from and is willing to take all measures to protect.

In recent years, Beijing has treated the South China Sea – one of the world’s most strategic bodies of water, where China claims a vast area that overlaps parts of the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei – as a core interest. This could be the fundamental reason the Obama administration refused to endorse Xi’s “great powers” framework.

An official acceptance would mean his administration’s recognition of Beijing’s disputed territorial claims in these strategic waters wherein, as Hillary Clinton, the then US secretary of state, stated in 2010, the United States “has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law”.

Such an endorsement could have emboldened China’s maritime expansionism and, consequently, would have alienated America’s key allies and partners in the region.

Against this background, it is astonishing that Tillerson used that Chinese formulation to talk about the US-China relationship. All the more so given the fact that, like Mr Trump and his other senior aides, America’s new secretary of state had earlier criticized China’s territorial and military expansion in the South China Sea, blamed the Obama administration for allowing it to happen and pledged a more aggressive approach to Beijing.

There are views that his unusually soft public statements were aimed at saving Beijing’s face and gaining its cooperation and that he privately pressed his hosts hard on North Korea and other disputed issues.

Given the current tensions in the world’s most important bilateral relations, coupled with the fact that a main objective of his trip to Beijing was to prepare for a possible summit between Trump and his Chinese counterpart in the US next month, a measured approach is somehow understandable.

Yet it is almost incomprehensible why Tillerson was willing to dance to China’s tune, publicly endorsing a formula for US-China diplomatic ties that Beijing has craved and the Obama administration declined to embrace.

Many countries in the region would hope that was Tillerson’s own position, not Trump’s. Should this be the Trump administration’s posture, it would radically change not only the US-China relationship but also the strategic landscape in the Asia-Pacific region – in Beijing’s favor.

In any case, China’s leadership and media had every reason to be satisfied with Tillerson’s visit.

Xi cordially received him at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, an honor often reserved for world leaders on their official visits to the Communist country. China’s supreme leader also reportedly praised Tillerson for making “a lot of active efforts to achieve a smooth transition” in US-China ties under the Trump era and commenting that the “relationship can only be defined by cooperation and friendship”.

The Global Times, a state newspaper that has vehemently criticized Trump and Tillerson, ran several pieces in which it was very receptive to the secretary of state’s explicit endorsement of China’s “new model of major power relations” and “principle of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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