Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with his counterparts in China and Russia this week for the first time and made his first public remarks since confirmation.
Tillerson’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Bonn, Germany, at the G20 conference on Thursday was described as his “debut on the world stage” by the Washington Post.
It was a rather brief debut as Tillerson’s statement after meeting Lavrov was only five sentences long and was delivered in less than one minute:
Foreign Minister Lavrov and I had a productive meeting and we discussed a range of issues of mutual concern.
As I made clear in my Senate confirmation hearing, the United States will consider working with Russia where we can find areas of practical cooperation that will benefit the American people.
Where we do not see eye to eye, the United States will stand up for the interests and values of America and her allies. As we search for new common ground, we expect Russia to honor its commitment to the Minsk agreements and work to de-escalate the violence in the Ukraine.
Thank you very much.
Media reports in both the East and West are fairly unanimous in describing one moment in the Tillerson-Lavrov meeting as “awkward.” Bloomberg News describes it as follows:
Protocol dictates the two would shake hands, exchange platitudes in front of the clicking cameras, and perhaps take an impromptu question before retiring for a private chat. Russia’s Sergei Lavrov began: “Mr. Secretary of State, I thank you for this opportunity to have the first contact after you have assumed the office and I would like to congratulate you once again for that.”
Lavrov also took a question about the turmoil back in Washington over the resignation of President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn. “You should know we do not interfere in the domestic matters of other countries,” he said.
That’s when things veered off script. As Tillerson began to speak, journalists got a swift signal to exit the room. The episode irked Lavrov, who openly wondered why U.S. aides pushed out Russian and American reporters without allowing them to listen to the rest of the opening remarks.
“Why did you shush them out?” Lavrov said.
According to Bloomberg, after Tillerson delivered his short statement he “walked out, ignoring a reporter who asked if he’d ever met Lavrov before.” The Washington Post more broadly criticized him for ignoring “most of the foreign policy questions reporters doggedly asked at the start of almost every meeting,” suggesting he might have “developed a jaundiced view of reporters.”
CNN suggests Tillerson’s priority after meeting with Lavrov was reassuring U.S. allies that the Trump administration won’t “do a Russia deal over their heads.” Of course, the article ends by dragging in former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and the lingering “questions of the nature of conversations with Russia on sanctions before taking up his administration role.”
Russian media declared the Tillerson-Lavrov meeting “productive” and said the two discussed Syria and Afghanistan in addition to the situation in Ukraine.
Tillerson met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bonn on Friday and stressed the need for China to help rein in North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. The Associated Press glumly observes that such requests from U.S. officials have been common in recent years but have “met with limited success.”
“Secretary Tillerson and Minister Wang noted the recent call between leaders and discussed efforts to advance bilateral cooperation while addressing differences in a constructive manner. Secretary Tillerson also highlighted the increasing threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and urged China to use all available tools to moderate North Korea’s destabilizing behavior. The two also discussed the need to create a level playing field for trade and investment,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner stated on Friday.
The “call between leaders” Toner referred to was the telephone conversation between Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. According to Chinese media quoted by the South China Morning Post, Wang told Tillerson this phone call was “very important” because Trump made it clear the United States would continue to respect Beijing’s “One China” policy toward Taiwan.
“For China, American involvement in the South China Sea territorial dispute is a no-brainer, not least because Tillerson had come out tough during his confirmation hearing last month,” speculated Wu Xinbo, director of Fudan University’s Center for American Studies, in the South China Morning Post. Steve Tsang of the SOAS China Institute in London took the lack of apparent “acrimony” in the Tillerson-Wang meeting as a “positive sign.”
Before meeting with Wang, Tillerson issued a joint statement with the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea, in which he said the United States “remains steadfast in its defense commitments to its allies, the Republic of Korea and Japan, including the commitment to provide extended deterrence, backed by the full range of its nuclear and conventional defense capabilities.” The rest of the statement concerned North Korea’s “destabilizing” and “provocative” actions.
China will likely take this as a declaration of commitment to installing the American THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea. There has been speculation Japan may ask for THAAD protection as well. THAAD upsetting to China (and Russia) because they believe the missile shield will “break the strategic balance” in the region and “seriously threaten China’s security interest,” as a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said in January.
The Washington Post summarized Tillerson’s visit to the G20 as bringing a “palpable sense of relief” to the assembled foreign ministers, “mingled with lingering concerns about the direction of U.S. foreign policy in the Trump administration.”
An interesting tidbit in the Post summary is that Tillerson will reportedly be involved in the Syria peace talks brokered by Russia, Turkey, and Iran when they restart next week — a process from which the United States has been excluded. The French and German Foreign Ministers expressed gratitude for Tillerson’s involvement, although the French minister added that he found the Trump administration’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “confused and worrying.”
The taciturn nature expressed in Tillerson’s brief statements to the press was again on display in his parting comment to reporters, as he left Bonn: “Met a lot of people, made a lot of new friends.”
When asked if his new friends gave him any messages to bring back to President Trump, he said: “Many.”