Despite a long list of potential pitfalls, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to China, the first by a senior member of the Trump administration, passed relatively smoothly, although there were no tangible gains to show.
As Tillerson yesterday wrapped up his visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) praised his “active efforts” in making a smooth transition of the US-China relationship to the Trump era.
Tillerson and the Chinese officials he met — Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) and State Councilor Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) — struck a positive note, only hinting at differences in their positions.
The US is looking forward to the first meeting between Trump and Xi, Tillerson said yesterday, adding that Trump places a “very high value” on communications with the Chinese president.
Trump looks forward to “the opportunity of a visit in the future,” he added, in an apparent reference to unconfirmed reports of plans for the two leaders to meet in Florida next month.
Xi told Tillerson that China considered his meetings on Saturday with Wang and Yang to have been productive and constructive.
“Both [Trump] and I believe that we need to make joint efforts to advance China-US cooperation and we believe that we can make sure the relationship will move ahead in a constructive fashion in the new era,” Xi said.
No formal agreements were announced during the visit, although the two sides said they would work together on North Korea and countering its rapidly developing nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Tillerson’s Beijing visit followed his remarks in South Korea on Friday that pre-emptive military action against North Korea might be necessary if the threat from its weapons program reaches a level “that we believe requires action.”
China has not responded directly to those comments, although Beijing has called repeatedly for all sides to take steps to reduce tensions.
However, wrapped up in the tightly scripted proceedings 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.
Nevertheless, 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 US later this year.
“For setting up a new tone, it’s a good start,” said Sun Zhe (孫哲), codirector 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,” Sun said.
Former US secretary of defense William Cohen said that Tillerson’s visit to China was important for both sides.
“The symbolism here is going to be as important as the substance,” he said 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 the Chinese Communist Party congress in the fall.