Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has returned from a tour of Asia that concluded with a cordial meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, one The New York Times reports featured significantly sterner tones in private than the “win-win cooperation” message of their joint public statement.
Tillerson’s meeting with Xi was the highest-level in-person exchange between China and the United States during the Trump era and was in part meant to set the tone for an upcoming meeting between Xi and Trump at the Trump Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida next month. In addition to allowing for a prelude to that meeting, however, Tillerson made clear during his first stop on the trip in Japan that reducing the global threat posed by an increasingly irrational North Korea was high on the list of issues to discuss.
The Times reported Sunday that at least one diplomat who asked not to be identified could confirm that Tillerson pressured Chinese officials to cease aiding North Korea’s economy and, thus, emboldening its rogue communist regime. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and provides a vital lifeline by purchasing its coal exports and offering to sell Pyongyang oil and other necessary goods. Earlier this year, China announced it would stop buying North Korean coal for the rest of the year in order to adhere to United Nations sanctions.
“I believe Tillerson repeated in the meetings what he said publicly in South Korea and Japan, and backed up Trump in his tweet,” the diplomat told the Times, adding that his cordial words in public “were designed to give China ‘face,'” and exhibit respect for Beijing before the international community.
What Tillerson said in South Korea and Japan was that China was not doing enough to curb North Korean belligerence in the region, while demanding that the United States abandon its allies to the whims of dictator Kim’s nuclear tests. “The policy of strategic patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table,” Tillerson told reporters in South Korea, referring to North Korea. “Strategic patience” is a phrase popularized by Tillerson’s predecessor Hillary Clinton, referring to the policy of waiting for North Korea’s economy to collapse, thus forcing its leaders to cease their nuclear weapons development. Due to China’s economic support, “strategic patience” never resulted in an end to the illegal North Korean nuclear program.
In Japan, Tillerson emphasized the need to convince China to stop supporting North Korea’s economy. “We look to China to fulfill its obligations and fully implement the sanctions called for,” Tillerson said in a joint press conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.
These statements were a far cry from what Tillerson told reporters in Beijing. In a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Tillerson used phrasing to describe an ideal U.S.-China relationship that appeared to come straight out of the pages of Communist Party media: “the U.S.-China relationship has been guided by an understanding of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.”
Tillerson added that he and Wang “had a very extensive exchange on North Korea, and Foreign Minister Wang affirmed again China’s longstanding policy of a denuclearized Korean peninsula,” noting that he was satisfied in thinking the two “share a common view and a sense that tensions on the peninsula are quite high.”
Prior to his meeting with Xi, Tillerson released a cordial statement devoid of any policy substance, thanking Xi and his ministers for their hospitality. Following that exchange, the State Department released a statement merely noting the two met for about a half an hour and “agreed there are opportunities for greater cooperation between China and the United States, but acknowledged there are, and will be in the future, differences between the two countries.”
Chinese state-run media offers little more information in a situation where, for both sides, no news is likely the best news. Xinhua reports that Xi told reporters after the meeting that “there are important development opportunities resulting from China-U.S. relations.” The two discussed “regional hotspot issues,” Xinhua continues, with little more detail.
It is in Xinhua’s editorial commentary about the meeting where signs appear to show that China received the message the Times reported Tillerson issued: do more to stop North Korea. The editorial referred to Tillerson’s comments in South Korea, dismissing his call for “all options on the table” as “nothing new” and “failed” policies.
“The approach illustrated that Washington needs to talk to the DPRK, not to terrorize it,” Xinhua demands.
Yet the Global Times, often a more belligerence state-run counterpart to Xinhua, lauds Tillerson merely a day later as a “moderate.” “Since Trump assumed office, it seems that previous difficulties in maintaining friendly relations with Washington are turning trickier. But the US has also showed some unprecedented positive tendencies,” the Global Times notes with some optimism.
The Global Times published several pieces on its homepage Monday suggesting the Chinese people have much to learn from interactions with America, a bizarre approach for a publication that has repeatedly threatened war on Washington.
“No doubt, Chinese can learn many things from other countries, including the US,” a Global Times column reads today. “And we can choose to learn the skills and practices that would benefit us. This has helped China in its rapid growth over the past decades.”