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China's Xi, Tillerson urge cooperation as North Korea tests rocket engine

March 20,2017 06:53

The test came hours before Tillerson met Chinese President Xi Jinping, the highest level meeting between a US official and China since US President Donald Trump took power in January. Xi told Tillerson that there are far more shared interests between ...



China's
President Xi Jinping meets U.S. State of Secretary, Rex Tillerson
at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, March 19,
2017.
REUTERS/Thomas
Peter

BEIJING (Reuters) - Despite a long list of potential pitfalls,
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's visit to China, the first
by a senior member of the Trump administration, passed off
relatively smoothly although there were no tangible gains to
show.

On the positive side, there was none of the awkwardness of the
kind seen in Washington as President Donald Trump and German
Chancellor Angela Merkel held the first summit meeting between
two of the West's biggest allies.

Even a tweet from Trump criticizing China the night before
Tillerson landed in Beijing did not, at least in public, create
any discord.

As Tillerson wrapped up his visit on Sunday, Chinese President Xi
Jinping praised his "active efforts" in making a smooth
transition of the U.S.-China relationship to the Trump era.

Tillerson and the Chinese officials he met – Foreign Minister
Wang Yi and State Councillor Yang Jiechi – struck a positive
note, only hinting at differences in their positions.

"For setting up a new tone, it's a good start," said Sun Zhe, the
co-director of the China Initiative of Columbia University's
School of International and Public Affairs.

"It seems that Donald Trump's administration is coming back to
the normal track, trying to work with China to solve problems."

No formal agreements were announced in the visit, although the
two sides said they would work together on North Korea and
countering its rapidly developing nuclear and ballistic missile
programs.

Wrapped up in the tightly scripted proceedings, however, was a
sense that the world's two biggest economies were warily testing
each other out as the new administration settles down in
Washington. They seemed to be reserving airing of differences for
another occasion.

The potential points of conflict are many, some inherited and
some that have come up since Trump took office in January. The
United States has started to deploy missile defenses in South
Korea that China views as a threat, Washington believes Beijing
could do more to rein in Pyongyang's weapons programs, and
prominent Trump administration officials and Trump himself have
bashed China's trade practices.

China's currency policy and the row in the South China Sea have
been bugbears for years.

Even Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing in January
that China had offered "empty promises" to pressure North Korea
but had failed to do so, and that it had "proven a willingness to
act with abandon in the pursuit of its own goals."

But the proceedings in Beijing were kept firmly devoid of
tensions as both sides worked on laying the groundwork for an
expected meeting between Trump and Xi in the United States later
this year.

U.S.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chinese Foreign Minister
Wang Yi shake hands at the end of a joint press conference at
Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, March 18,
2017.
REUTERS/ Mark
Schiefelbein/Pool

Important symbolism

William Cohen, a former U.S. defense secretary, said Tillerson's
visit was important for both sides.

"The symbolism here is going to be as important as the
substance," he told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference in
Beijing. "Because the substance will come later."

One Beijing-based Western diplomat said it was in Xi's interests
to be nice to Trump for now as China does not want any
distractions or external instability ahead of a tricky leadership
transition at a key Communist Party congress in Beijing, likely
in October.

Tillerson's visit to Asia - he went to Japan and South Korea
before China - was closely watched. A former chief executive of
Exxon Mobil, the 64-year-old has no previous experience as a
diplomat but nonetheless has had deep exposure to dealing with
foreign leaders in countries with interests opposed to or in
competition with those of the United States.

China has had at times confrontational relationships with
Tillerson's predecessors, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, and did
not like being lectured by them on human rights in particular.

Last year, while at an annual strategic China-U.S. dialogue in
Beijing, Kerry expressed concern at Beijing's controversial law
on foreign non-governmental organizations and about human rights
problems in China.

Clinton was seen in Beijing as the architect of the U.S. "pivot"
to Asia, something China was deeply suspicious of.

She ended a 2009 visit to China by attending services at a
state-sanctioned church, having a conversation with women's
rights activists and doing a short Web chat.

Tillerson made brief mention of human rights and religious
freedom while in Beijing, but had no known meetings with
activists or engagements with civil society representatives.

Christian rights lawyer Zhang Peihong, who has represented
Christian activists in China, said he had not expected Tillerson
to make a big deal about human rights.

"It would have been better if he'd talked about it, as these are
universal values," Zhang told Reuters. "He must have had his
reasons." 

Rex Tillerson with US Gen.
Vincent K. Brooks
Reuters

Dispute in S.Korea

But Tillerson's diplomatic inexperience showed in at least one
instance, when in an interview published on Saturday he appeared
to accuse the South Korean government of lying about the details
of his visit.

Unnamed South Korean officials had told the Korea Herald
newspapers that Tillerson's "fatigue" was to blame for not having
a meal with any officials in Seoul, as opposed to his lengthier
meetings with Japanese counterparts.

Tillerson disputed that in an interview with the Independent
Journal Review, a conservative outlet whose reporter was the sole
media representative invited to travel with the secretary of
state.

"They never invited us for dinner, then at the last minute they
realized that optically it wasn't playing very well in public for
them, so they put out a statement that we didn't have dinner
because I was tired," Tillerson said, according to a transcript
of the interview.

(Additional reporting by Michael Martina and Matthew Miller;
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Read the original article on Reuters. Copyright 2017. Follow Reuters on Twitter.

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