Rex Tillerson saved his most important Asian trip for last, arriving in China this weekend after tough talk on North Korea and promises to ratchet up the pressure on Beijing. As the Financial Times notes, however, the trip ended up on an anticlimactic note:
Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, wrapped up two days of meetings in Beijing on Sunday with little progress made in narrowing the two sides’ stark differences on the North Korean nuclear crisis.
But to Beijing’s relief just weeks ahead of the first meeting between the two countries’ presidents, Mr Tillerson also argued that differences on any one issue should not be allowed to derail the overall relationship.
“You said that China-US relations can only be friendly,” Chinese president Xi Jinping told the secretary of state, adding that “we are both expecting a new era for constructive development”. Mr Xi and his US counterpart, Donald Trump, are expected to meet early next month in Florida.
With nothing concrete to show for Tillerson’s first Chinese trip, the most noteworthy development may have been a rhetorical one. In describing the bilateral relationship, Tillerson notably used the preferred Chinese language of “mutual respect” and “win-win” cooperation: loaded phrases that some commentators considered a diplomatic give-away to Beijing, being as they were almost word-for-word reiterations of demands Xi made of Obama in 2013. Meanwhile, North Korea pointedly announced they had tested a rocket engine while Tillerson was engaged in talks about the nuclear crisis.
Tillerson is no doubt pressing the Chinese behind closed doors, and taking a harder stance privately than his public appearances suggest. But if the Secretary of State hoped to return home with a real and public Chinese concession, he left empty-handed. Barring a sudden breakthrough, the next best chance for diplomatic progress will be the Trump-Xi summit at Mar-a-Lago next month.