Despite a long list of potential pitfalls, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to China, the first by a senior member of the Trump administration, passed off relatively smoothly although there were no tangible gains to show.
On the positive side, there was none of the awkwardness of the kind seen in Washington as President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel held the first summit meeting between two of the West’s biggest allies.
Even a tweet from Trump criticising China the night before Tillerson landed in Beijing did not, at least in public, create any discord.
As Tillerson wrapped up his visit on Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping praised his “active efforts” in making a smooth transition of the U.S.-China relationship to the Trump era.
Tillerson and the Chinese officials he met—Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Councillor Yang Jiechi—struck a positive note, only hinting at differences in their positions.
“For setting up a new tone, it’s a good start,” said Sun Zhe, the co-director of the China Initiative of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
“It seems that Donald Trump’s administration is coming back to the normal track, trying to work with China to solve problems.”
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No formal agreements were announced in the visit, although the two sides said they would work together on North Korea and countering its rapidly developing nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Wrapped up in the tightly scripted proceedings, however, was a sense that the world’s two biggest economies were warily testing each other out as the new administration settles down in Washington. They seemed to be reserving airing of differences for another occasion.
The potential points of conflict are many, some inherited and some that have come up since Trump took office in January. The United States has started to deploy missile defences in South Korea that China views as a threat, Washington believes Beijing could do more to rein in Pyongyang’s weapons programs, and prominent Trump administration officials and Trump himself have bashed China’s trade practices.
China’s currency policy and the row in the South China Sea have been bugbears for years.
Even Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing in January that China had offered “empty promises” to pressure North Korea but had failed to do so, and that it had “proven a willingness to act with abandon in the pursuit of its own goals.”
But the proceedings in Beijing were kept firmly devoid of tensions as both sides worked on laying the groundwork for an expected meeting between Trump and Xi in the United States later this year.
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William Cohen, a former U.S. defence secretary, said Tillerson’s visit was important for both sides.
“The symbolism here is going to be as important as the substance,” he told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference in Beijing. “Because the substance will come later.”
One Beijing-based Western diplomat said it was in Xi’s interests to be nice to Trump for now as China does not want any distractions or external instability ahead of a tricky leadership transition at a key Communist Party congress in Beijing, likely in October.
Tillerson’s visit to Asia—he went to Japan and South Korea before China—was closely watched. A former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, the 64-year-old has no previous experience as a diplomat but nonetheless has had deep exposure to dealing with foreign leaders in countries with interests opposed to or in competition with those of the United States.
China has had at times confrontational relationships with Tillerson’s predecessors, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, and did not like being lectured by them on human rights in particular.
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Last year, while at an annual strategic China-U.S. dialogue in Beijing, Kerry expressed concern at Beijing’s controversial law on foreign non-governmental organisations and about human rights problems in China.
Clinton was seen in Beijing as the architect of the U.S. “pivot” to Asia, something China was deeply suspicious of.
She ended a 2009 visit to China by attending services at a state-sanctioned church, having a conversation with women’s rights activists and doing a short Web chat.
Tillerson made brief mention of human rights and religious freedom while in Beijing, but had no known meetings with activists or engagements with civil society representatives.
Christian rights lawyer Zhang Peihong, who has represented Christian activists in China, said he had not expected Tillerson to make a big deal about human rights.
“It would have been better if he’d talked about it, as these are universal values,” Zhang told Reuters. “He must have had his reasons.”
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But Tillerson’s diplomatic inexperience showed in at least one instance, when in an interview published on Saturday he appeared to accuse the South Korean government of lying about the details of his visit.
Unnamed South Korean officials had told the Korea Herald newspaper that Tillerson’s “fatigue” was to blame for not having a meal with any officials in Seoul, as opposed to his lengthier meetings with Japanese counterparts.
Tillerson disputed that in an interview with the Independent Journal Review, a conservative outlet whose reporter was the sole media representative invited to travel with the secretary of state.
“They never invited us for dinner, then at the last minute they realized that optically it wasn’t playing very well in public for them, so they put out a statement that we didn’t have dinner because I was tired,” Tillerson said, according to a transcript of the interview.