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Does Tillerson’s Asia Visit Signal a New Era in U.S.-China Relations?

A ChinaFile Conversation

On March 19, during his first trip to Asia as U.S. Secretary of State, and amidst rising tensions with North Korea, Rex Tillerson met with China’s Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping. The day before, Tillerson released a statement describing the bilateral relationship as one built on “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” Tillerson’s statement echoed language that Xi has used to describe “a new type of great power relations,” his preferred descriptor of the bilateral relationship. After the visit, the Washington Post published an article headlined, “In China Debut, Tillerson Appeared to Hand Beijing a Diplomatic Victory.” Did Beijing win out on the optics of the trip? What about the substance? —The Editors

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s strategy on the trip was to be nice in public but tough in private. He apparently delivered a stern message on North Korea, and it’s possible that China will come around. But Tillerson definitely lost the public relations battle and perhaps a lot more by parroting the components of “a new type of great power relations.”

He assumed that uttering this string of principles was a mere formality that gives Xi Jinping some face, creates conditions for China to compromise on big issues, and actually costs the United States little. He likely did not arrive at this conclusion by consulting China experts within the State Department and other agencies, because they would have explained how this term is far more than token symbolism. It is, in fact, a coded message that essentially says the United States accepts China as a co-equal that is not an enemy nor a rival. Moreover, it implies that the burden falls primarily on the United States to ensure that peace and cooperation between the two is maintained because China is already doing its part. Even if the U.S. doesn’t accept this interpretation, the Chinese are sure to “educate” their public and other countries that the United States has certified China as a full-fledged superpower.

The Obama administration learned the hard way. In 2013, Vice President Joseph Biden seemed to endorse the “new type of great power relations” when visiting Beijing right after China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) for the East China Sea. It’s possible other administration officials also used the term in private until they realized the wrong signal it sent. There were other factors at play, but China seemed to operate on the assumption that the Obama administration would never forcefully challenge Beijing on major areas of strategic disagreement.

The first step to escaping this box is for Secretary Tillerson and other U.S. officials to desist from endorsing any of Beijing’s official rhetoric. Second, the administration should openly challenge the assumptions of the phrase “a new type of great power relations” by telling their counterparts that to date China is not living up to these principles, and that achieving “a new type of great power relations” requires that China first become “a new type of great power.” This means jettisoning 19th century views of international politics and becoming a stronger supporter of the current international order. This would require constraining the aggressive components of their security strategy, liberalizing their economy, creating a much more solid foundation for the rule of law and civil society domestically, and playing a larger and more constructive role in global governance.

The final part of the solution is for the Trump administration to develop its own overarching framework to describe the relationship and China’s role in the world. To my mind, the Bush Administration’s admonition of China to become a “responsible stakeholder” was an effective framework because it accurately described the present while setting forth an important aspirational goal for China. The Obama administration, after dabbling with Chinese rhetoric, settled on a modified formula used by every American President since normalization to describe China, when President Obama said in November 2014: “The United States welcomes the continuing rise of a China that is peaceful, prosperous, and stable and that plays a responsible role in the world.”

President Trump will certainly want to develop his own framework, but it would be better to use as a starting point language that emerges from American principles, not official Chinese ideology.

Tillerson’s statements echoed President Xi Jinping’s desire for the sound direction of China-U.S. relations. This should not be viewed merely as a Chinese success. Rather, it is a good indicator of the health of the two countries’ ties for years to come.

President Xi wishes to build bilateral relations on the basis of “non-confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, mutual benefit, and win-win.” There is no reason to argue that relations should be confrontational, conflicting, disrespectful, without benefit, or beneficial only to one party and zero-sum.

However, there are ample challenges to following the desired direction. First, China has some thinking to do. For instance, the U.S. preemptive war against Iraq was viewed by Washington as a vital interest at its start. Should China respect every interest America brands vital? Can a cordial China-U.S. relationship be built upon such “con-confrontational, non-conflict” recipe, if the U.S. seeks a vote to seek support from the United Nations Security Council? And, should China take a firm position against the U.S., as Russia, France, and Germany did in 2003? Would that not certainly lead to a confrontational relationship?

At present, it is inconceivable that America will act in accordance with the aforementioned formula. The U.S. has positioned itself as a City Upon a Hill, a savior of the world, and has freedom of operation around the world, either to sell weapons to Taiwan or launch a war on Iraq without proper justification and international approval. In addition, any effort by China to achieve national integration across the Taiwan Strait through coercive fashion, or to conduct land reclamation in the South China Sea, is viewed by Washington as confrontational and in conflict with American interests and therefore deemed unacceptable.

In order for the two sides to agree upon a future modus vivendi for bilateral relations, Beijing and Washington need to know, specifically, what such a relationship would mean. Without clarity both will suffer from more apprehension and a distrust of the other’s strategic intention could develop. What’s most important is to understand the substance of Tillerson’s statements in Beijing and to figure out how both sides will draw their obligation therefrom.