US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi at the State Department in Washington, DC. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi at the State Department in Washington, DC. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Amid a steady increase in tensions between the US and China over the past several months, punctuated by rhetoric emphasizing “great power competition” from the Trump administration, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi paid a visit to Washington determined to change the tone.

Yang did not leave empty handed — at least from the standpoint of headlines. The most substantial development announced during his visit was the resumption of a briefly defunct high-level dialogue mechanism devised during the first Trump-Xi summit last April.

In addition to a reboot sometime within this year of the Comprehensive Economic Dialogue (CED), the two nations agreed to hold a dialogue on security issues within the first half of the year, according to Chinese state media. Following the failure of the first CED to result in even a joint statement, a Trump administration official later said that there were no plans to revive the talks.

China’s top envoy urged the two sides to “strengthen coordination on the Korean peninsula nuclear issue,” and “appropriately control” disputes and sensitive issues.

Yang was also able to report affirmations from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump on a range of pro forma statements regarding bilateral ties:

  • The two leaders also agreed that the China-US ties have global relevance, and promoting the bilateral relationship is not only in line with the fundamental interests of the two peoples, but also meets the common aspirations of international society.
  • According to [foreign ministry spokesperson] Lu, the US side agreed that the United States and China have made positive progress in dealing with bilateral ties, and Washington is willing to strengthen cooperation with Beijing to build a fruitful and constructive relationship.
  • It also said it is ready to work with China to consolidate and expand the win-win cooperation, and properly settle disputes with mutual respect so as to propel bilateral ties.

During the first official US visit to China of the Trump era last year, Rex Tillerson’s embrace of the term “win-win” was construed by some inside and outside of China as an acknowledgement from the Trump administration of a rebalanced global landscape.

China Daily criticized The Washington Post’s characterization of the development last March:

The Post article went on to scold the top US diplomat after he described the US-China relations as “a very positive relationship built on no confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and always searching for win-win solutions”.

Tillerson’s words came as a surprise, to the delight of many in Beijing but the dismay of some in Washington. The proposal made by China in 2012 to build a new type of major country relationship between China and the US based on “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” was aimed at avoiding a disastrous war if the established power became too fearful of the rising power.

While meeting President Xi Jinping in California in June 2013, then US president Barack Obama appeared to accept the idea of a new type of relations. But his administration then stayed away from it, interpreting it as away for China to tell the US to keep quiet no matter what China does.

We will have to wait and see whether Yang’s trip was as successful as Chinese coverage suggests. How much progress is made utilizing the apparently revived bilateral dialogue mechanism will be one measure.