N. Korea ooms over U.S-China meeting
As Tillerson, Xi stress cooperation, Kim tests missile engine.
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and President Xi Jinping of China cast aside their differences on Sunday with a public display of coop- eration, sidestepping areas of disagreement even as North Korea made another defiant statement by showing off a new missile engine.
In the highest-level face- to-face meeting between the two countries since Donald Trump became president, the two sides made no mention of other contentious issues, including possible punitive trade measures against China and Washington’s unhappi- ness with Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Xi, greeting the new sec- retary of state in an ornate room in the Great Hall of the People, thanked Tillerson for a smooth transition to the Trump administration and expressed his appreciation for the sentiment that “the China-U.S. relationship can only be defined by cooperation and friendship.”
At least in public, Tillerson adopted a far different tone than that of his boss, who said in a Twitter post on Friday that China had “done little to help” on North Korea, instead saying that the United States looked forward to stronger ties with China.
China has been N orth Korea’s biggest backer, but relations between the two countries have been strained as the North continues to pursue the development of nuclear weapons. Hours before the meeting between Tillerson and Xi, North Korea stuck its nose under the tent, announcing that it had tested a new high-thrust missile engine that analysts said could be used in an intercontinental missile. The test was another sign that North Korea was expanding its missile capabil- ities, with state media reporting that the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, had presided over an event of “historic sig- nificance.”
By testing the engine on Saturday, the North Korean leader appeared to be giving China an additional head- ache by goading Tillerson, who said in South Korea on Friday that if the North ele- vated its threat, a pre-emp- tive strike by the United States would be on the table.
The missile engine test created the “perfect test” of the red line drawn by Tillerson in Seoul, said Evans J.R. Revere, a former principal deputy assistant secretary of state, specializing in North Korea.
Kim said in January that North Korea was in the final stages of preparing for an ICBM test, a missile that could reach the United States. “Based on what just happened at the test site, he doesn’t seem to have been kidding,” Revere said.
During his 24-hour stay in Beijing, Tillerson, who also visited Japan during his first trip to Asia as secretary of state, took the unusual step of repeating rosy Chinese lan- guage on the state of relations between the United States and China.
The relationship between China and the U.S. was guided by “nonconflict, nonconfron- tation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation,” Til- lerson said at a news con- ference with Foreign Min- ister Wang Yi. Chinese state media quoted Tillerson’s echo of the Chinese phrasing, not- ing it approvingly.
But behind the scenes, diplomats and analysts said there was little doubt that Tillerson had pressed China to enforce sanctions against North Korea and had raised the possibility that the United States would bolster its missile defense in Asia if China did not rein in Kim.
China strongly objects to the installation in South Korea of a missile defense system there, and the polite public words from Tillerson were designed to give China “face,” said a diplomat in Beijing who spoke on the condition of anonymity per usual diplomatic custom.
Tillerson was almost certainly sterner in private, according to the diplomat. “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 said. That meant some public warmth was necessary, he said, because aside from talking about North Korea, Tillerson also had the task of setting a broad agenda for a summit meeting between Trump and Xi that is expected to take place in Florida in early April.
China is expected to seek a reaffirmation of the “One China” policy under which the United States recognizes a single government in Beijing and does not maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) shakes hands with China’s President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sunday.