The intricate dance of diplomacy was in full swing this past week when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Japan, China, and Korea during his first trip to Asia since confirmation. The purpose was to chart a positive course concerning the Trump administration and Beijing in order to solidify the shaky relationship between the two mega-powers.
Four decades have passed since the People’s Republic permitted former President Nixon to open a dialogue and sit down with Chinese leaders. Since then, relations have been at times hopeful, tense, and downright chilling. As it turns out, it’s not all that easy being a friend to China.
However, Tillerson is no novice regarding diplomatic relations. As CEO of Exxon, he traveled the globe negotiating with world leaders on a variety of issues affecting not only the success of Exxon but also the image of America and American interests abroad.
Chinese President Xi Jinping bestowed the honor of meeting personally with Tillerson. Not necessarily an unprecedented move in diplomatic circles, but it spoke volumes to the seriousness of the two super powers attempting to stay friendly, or at least cordial. It was a clear signal from Chinese leaders that they intend to get started on the right foot with the new administration.
China has been at odds with the US on a few issues of late–most recently the pressure coming from Washington, DC to assist in curbing North Korea’s advancement of their nuclear program. Coupled with President Trump’s involvement and promised arms package assistance with Taiwan a sticky meeting agenda was imminent. The Taiwan issue certainly troubles the powers that be in Beijing.
Both men took the dais in the Chinese capital city, and reported the outcome of their first official meet and greet. With the Great Hall of the People as a backdrop, and reporters their rapt audience, Tillerson and Xi Jinping committed to a friendly relationship, as Reuters reported:
“You said that China-U.S. relations can only be friendly. I express my appreciation for this,” Xi said. Xi said he had communicated with President Donald Trump several times through telephone conversations and messages. “We both believe that China-U.S. cooperation henceforth is the direction we are both striving for. We are both expecting a new era for constructive development. The joint interests of China and the United States far outweigh the differences, and cooperation is the only correct choice for us both,” Xi added, in comments carried by China’s Foreign Ministry.
Apparently, when Trump publicly admonished North Korea as “behaving very badly” and chiding China as not helpful in tamping down North Korea’s zeal for all things nuclear, the Chinese leader brushed off the accusations and focused instead on finding areas of agreement. All outward appearances show the meeting was a success and an unambiguous step in the right direction. Still, we will never truly know what happened behind closed doors, but it did seem that there was progress made in the relationship between the two countries.
The Secretary of State also met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and joined in pledging support to guide North Korea away from pursuing additional nuclear capabilities. That’s politically correct speak for Tillerson. While speaking in Seoul, he promised a military response if North Korea didn’t settle down. Leaders in NK have had a grand time giving the U.N. the universal sign of displeasure over recent sanctions.
Nevertheless, China is worried, as they should be, as Reuters pointed out, and here is why:
North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests and a series of missile launches, in defiance of U.N. sanctions, and is believed by experts and government officials to be working to develop nuclear-warhead missiles that could reach the United States.
China says it is committed to enforcing U.N. sanctions on North Korea, but all sides have a responsibility to lessen tensions and get back to the negotiating table. Chinese officials also repeatedly say they do not have the influence over North Korea that Washington and others believe, and express fears poverty-struck North Korea could collapse if it were cut off completely, pushing destabilizing waves of refugees into northeastern China.
This meeting bodes well for both China and the United States. Both seemingly found common ground, and additional goals were set for continued peace and prosperity. By putting differences aside, acknowledging each country’s global responsibilities, needs, and expectations, true diplomacy seemed to be accomplished.
For his first time at bat, Tillerson has seemingly hit a home run and made the transition from CEO to statesman. The State Department appeared to be a shining beacon of light in Asia, and for this administration, a necessary and welcome success. However as is the case is so many diplomatic endeavors, only time will tell if relations between the two countries can stay cordial and balanced.
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