Tiller­son ap­pears to give ground to Bei­jing

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY SI­MON DENYER

bei­jing — While his boss was goad­ing China over Twit­ter, new Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son has been try­ing to build a con­struc­tive and “re­sults-ori­ented” re­la­tion­ship with the lead­er­ship in Bei­jing.

And though his warn­ings about the pos­si­bil­ity of even­tual mil­i­tary ac­tion over North Korea have raised hack­les here, Tiller­son re­ceived a warm wel­come from China’s pres­i­dent on Sun­day.

“You have made a lot of ac­tive ef­forts to achieve a smooth tran­si­tion in our re­la­tion­ship un­der the new era,” Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping told Tiller­son as the men sat down for talks in the Great Hall of the Peo­ple. “And I also ap­pre­ci­ate your com­ment that the Chinare­la­tion­ship can only be de­fined by co­op­er­a­tion and friend­ship.”

But some crit­ics say Tiller­son has bent too far, hand­ing Bei­jing what Chi­nese news me­dia re-

ports are call­ing a “diplo­matic vic­tory.”

Af­ter meet­ing China’s For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi on Satur­day, Tiller­son voiced Chi­nese catch­phrases about the re­la­tion­ship, in­clud­ing the avoid­ance of con­flict and con­fronta­tion and the need to build “mu­tual re­spect” and strive for “win-win” co­op­er­a­tion.

The phrase “mu­tual re­spect” is key: In Bei­jing, that is taken to mean each side should re­spect the other’s “core in­ter­ests.”

In other words: The United States should stay away from is­sues such as Tai­wan, Ti­bet and Hong Kong — and in prin­ci­ple al­most any­thing China’s Com­mu­nist Party deems a vi­tal na­tional se­cu­rity con­cern. In­creas­ingly, that also ap­pears to in­clude China’s ter­ri­to­rial claims in the con­tested wa­ters of the South China Sea.

Sev­eral Chi­nese for­eign pol­icy ex­perts called the com­ments “very pos­i­tive” and in line with a con­cept Bei­jing has long ad­vo­cated — what it calls “a new model of great power re­la­tion­ships,” which would put the two na­tions on a roughly equal foot­ing.

Jin Can­rong, a Sino-U.S. re­la­tions ex­pert at Ren­min Univer­sity of China in Bei­jing, said Tiller­son’s com­ments came as a sur­prise.

“China has long been ad­vo­cat­ing this, but the United States has been re­luc­tant to ac­cept the point of ‘mu­tual re­spect,’ ” Jin said. “Tiller­son’s com­ment will be very warmly wel­comed by China.”

But Bon­nie Glaser, se­nior ad­viser for Asia at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, said the United States should use its own lan­guage to de­scribe bi­lat­eral re­la­tions, not em­brace China’s.

More im­por­tant, “mu­tual re­spect” sig­nals ac­cep­tance of “a litany of is­sues that China views as non­nego­tiable,” she said. “By agree­ing to this, the U.S. is in ef­fect say­ing that it ac­cepts that China has no room to com­pro­mise on these is­sues.”

That would be a mis­take, said Glaser, adding that China has shown no in­cli­na­tion to ac­cept what might be seen as U.S. “core in­ter­ests,” such as its al­liances in Asia.

On the cam­paign trail last year, can­di­date Don­ald Trump pil­lo­ried China as a se­cu­rity threat and, par­tic­u­larly, a stealer of Amer­i­can jobs. On Fri­day, as Tiller­son pre­pared to make his way to Bei­jing on the third leg of his Asian tour, Trump took to Twit­ter to crit­i­cize China for not help­ing rein in North Korea’s nu­clear pro­gram.

Tiller­son has al­most cer­tainly been push­ing China hard on the North Korean is­sue be­hind closed doors. But in pub­lic, his tone has been much more mea­sured, judg­ing this to be a bet­ter way to save China’s face and gain its co­op­er­a­tion.

He could have re­ceived as­sur­ances from China — for ex­am­ple, over North Korea or trade — that he felt mer­ited giv­ing ground in re­turn. Or per­haps the for­mer Exxon-Mo­bil boss is sim­ply not that wor­ried about pars­ing diplo­matic lan­guage and is more fo­cused on re­sults.

“Tiller­son’s re­marks were prob­a­bly an ef­fort to pro­vide Xi face in pub­lic, while be­hind

“Tiller­son’s re­marks were prob­a­bly an ef­fort to pro­vide Xi face in pub­lic, while be­hind doors, the con­ver­sa­tion was prob­a­bly more di­rect. At least I hope so.” Wal­ter Lohman, di­rec­tor of Her­itage Foun­da­tion’s Asian Stud­ies Cen­ter

doors, the con­ver­sa­tion was prob­a­bly more di­rect,” said Wal­ter Lohman, di­rec­tor of the Asian Stud­ies Cen­ter at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion. “At least I hope so. Be­cause, as­sum­ing Xi para­phrased Tiller­son ac­cu­rately, it is cer­tainly not true that ‘ the China-U. S. re­la­tion­ship can only be de­fined by co­op­er­a­tion and friend­ship.’ ”

Nev­er­the­less, Tiller­son ap­pears to have given ground to Bei­jing in a way that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion had avoided do­ing. Ely Rat­ner, who worked as Vice Pres­i­dent Joseph R. Bi­den’s deputy na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser and is now a se­nior fel­low at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, took to Twit­ter to call it a “big mis­take and missed op­por­tu­nity” for par­rot­ing Chi­nese gov­ern­ment “plat­i­tudes and pro­pa­ganda.”

“China’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the U. S.-China re­la­tion­ship, as ex­em­pli­fied by those phrases, por­tends U. S. de­cline and ac­com­mo­da­tion,” he wrote in an email. “Tiller­son us­ing these phrases buys into this dan­ger­ous nar­ra­tive, which will only en­cour­age Chi­nese as­sertive­ness and raise doubts in the re­gion about the fu­ture of U. S. com­mit­ment and lead­er­ship in Asia.”

As for Trump, he had shown so lit­tle re­gard for Bei­jing’s sen­si­tiv­i­ties that he even ques­tioned whether the United States should con­tinue to up­hold the one-China pol­icy, which rules out in­de­pen­dence and diplo­matic recog­ni­tion for Tai­wan.

That had spooked and an­gered Bei­jing un­til Trump backed down dur­ing what has been de­scribed as a warm and cor­dial tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion with Xi last month.

On Sun­day, China’s pres­i­dent said that, af­ter talk­ing, both lead­ers “be­lieve that we can make sure the re­la­tion­ship will move ahead in a con­struc­tive fash­ion in the new era.”

Both sides are talk­ing about a face-to-face meet­ing be­tween the lead­ers. China re­al­izes that a per­sonal rap­port with Trump is im­por­tant and watched in con­ster­na­tion as Ja­pan’s Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe made an early visit to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago re­sort in Florida.

Tiller­son seemed to ac­knowl­edge that get­ting his pres­i­dent bet­ter ac­quainted with China would make his job eas­ier.

The “very lengthy” phone call be­tween the lead­ers not only im­proved China’s un­der­stand­ing of the United States but also Trump’s un­der­stand­ing of China, Tiller­son said. “And he looks for­ward to en­hanc­ing that un­der­stand­ing in the op­por­tu­nity for a visit in the fu­ture.”

“We know that through fur­ther di­a­logue we will achieve a greater un­der­stand­ing that will lead to a strength­en­ing of the ties be­tween China and the United States and set the tone for our fu­ture re­la­tion­ship of co­op­er­a­tion,” he said.

Tiller­son and Xi nod­ded as the other spoke, both flanked by of­fi­cials and aides in the lav­ishly dec­o­rated Fu­jian Room in the Great Hall of the Peo­ple, on the west side of Bei­jing’s Tianan­men Square, be­fore the news me­dia was ush­ered out for Tiller­son’s last meet­ing of his three-na­tion Asian tour.

Even more than trade ties, North Korea has emerged as the big­gest thorn in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Bei­jing. The United States wants firmer ac­tion to iso­late Py­ongyang and per­suade the regime to aban­don its nu­clear pro­gram.

Tiller­son says diplo­matic ef­forts have failed and has not ruled out even­tual mil­i­tary ac­tion. China, though, op­poses any­thing that could bring down the regime in Py­ongyang and bring in­sta­bil­ity to its bor­ders.

It in­sists that di­a­logue is the only way for­ward, and Wang, the for­eign min­is­ter, told Tiller­son on Satur­day that the United States should re­main “cool­headed.”

Yet North Korea upped the ante even fur­ther Sun­day by an­nounc­ing it had car­ried out a rocket en­gine test “of his­toric sig­nif­i­cance.”

THOMAS PETER/REUTERS

Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son in the Great Hall of the Peo­ple in Bei­jing. “You have made a lot of ac­tive ef­forts to achieve a smooth tran­si­tion in our re­la­tion­ship un­der the new era,” Xi told Tiller­son. “And I also ap­pre­ci­ate your com­ment that the China-U.S. re­la­tion­ship can only be de­fined by co­op­er­a­tion and friend­ship.”

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