China Power

US Secretary of State Tillerson Meets Chinese President Xi

North Korea monopolizes the agenda as Tillerson wraps up his Beijing trip.

US Secretary of State Tillerson Meets Chinese President Xi
Credit: U.S. State Department photo

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sunday in a careful public display of cooperation. It was the highest level face-to-face meeting since the Trump administration took office.

At a news conference with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Tillerson also adopted a conciliatory and cooperative tone saying the U.S.-China relationship was guided by “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs were at the top of Tillerson’s agenda on this visit. Wang had days earlier proposed North Korea freeze its nuclear arsenal development in a deal that would see the United States and South Korea cease joint military exercises. Before arriving in Beijing Tillerson had pointedly kept open the option of U.S. military action against North Korea. The Trump administration has so far refused to enter talks with Pyongyang.

Tillerson said during his visit to South Korea days earlier that “if they [North Korea] elevate the threat of their weapons program” to an unacceptable level, then the United States may be forced to take preemptive action.

Wang said the “suspension for suspension” proposal “can help us break out of the security dilemma and bring the parties back to the negotiating table.”

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The proposal was swiftly turned down by both South Korean and U.S. officials. Still, Tillerson’s tone in China was in stark contrast to Trump’s most recent Twitter outburst. The president accused China of doing “little to help” as North Korea was “playing” the United States. A more conciliatory tone was likely necessary given that Tillerson’s visit was intended to set up the agenda for a summit meeting between Xi and Trump in early April (although no dates were announced during Tillerson’s trip).

China expects the United States to solidify its affirmation of the “One China” policy, despite Trump’s verbal recommitment to Xi on a telephone conversation in early February.

For its part, the United States expects China to enforce sanctions against a pugnacious North Korea, which only hours before Tillerson’s meeting with Xi tested a new missile engine. The move was almost certainly timed to test U.S. resolve.

In the meeting, Xi said that important opportunities to further develop China-U.S. relations remain and that the common interests between the two nations are weightier than their disagreements. Cooperation is the only correct choice, Xi said. He emphasized the importance of focusing on the long term and the need for strategic negotiations, and stressed the need for the two countries to respect each other’s core interest and concerns.

“We believe that we can make sure the relationship will move ahead in a constructive fashion in the new era. I am confident that as long as we do this; our relationship can surely move in the right direction,” said Xi.

Tillerson said “the China-U.S. relationship can only be defined by cooperation and friendship.”

Xi thanked Tillerson for a smooth transition to the Trump administration, before extending an invite for Trump to visit China.