Rex Tillerson made a show of harmony with Chinese leaders during a whirlwind visit to Beijing, skipping over tensions around trade and North Korea to emphasize the personal bond between the countries’ presidents.
Over three meetings with President Xi Jinping and China’s top foreign policy officials, the U.S. Secretary of State spoke of, and heard about, the friendship that Xi has developed with President Donald Trump during two face-to-face encounters and multiple phone calls and letters.
“I’ve enjoyed each and every one of those engagements,” Xi told Tillerson. “We have made considered efforts to push for the growth of the China-U.S. relationship and the two of us have also maintained very good working relationship and personal friendship.”
The private discussions Tillerson had with Xi, State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi were likely more substantive. But the public comments — made to reporters standing behind rope lines in the ornate meeting rooms of Beijing’s Great Hall of the People — were especially saccharine even by the standards of such photo-ops.
There was no mention of North Korea’s nuclear program or the U.S. desire for China to do even more to strangle Pyongyang’s economy. Nor did Tillerson cite U.S. displeasure about China’s construction work on islands it claims in the South China Sea, or raise Trump’s sense of injustice around China’s annual trade surplus of nearly $350 billion with the U.S.
Tillerson spent less than 12 hours in Beijing after flying from Washington and refueling in Alaska and Tokyo on the way. The government plane he used for the trip, a modified Boeing 757, developed technical problems during the stop in Japan. That forced Tillerson to spend the night at Yokota Air Base and make the final leg to Beijing strapped into a jump seat in a C-130 Hercules military transport craft.
“You had a long day, and also some minor troubles — technical ones,” Wang said at the start of their meeting, Tillerson’s first of the day. “The China-U.S. relationship has maintained a stable momentum at the moment, and is also facing an important opportunity to make new progress.”
Tillerson’s brief visit was ostensibly made to plan for Trump’s upcoming visit, so it was natural that the U.S. leader would be the focus of any remarks. And the public portion of the meetings went exactly as China likes them to go: statements of comity in public, with grievances or concerns aired only behind closed doors.
Tillerson has the same style, preferring to deliver tough messages privately in the belief that they’re more likely to be heeded if the target isn’t publicly shamed. On his first trip to China earlier this year, the taciturn former Exxon Mobil executive appeared uncomfortable with the ritual of making pleasant opening remarks before getting down to the substance of the talks away from the cameras.
But by his third meeting of the day on Saturday, he’d clearly gotten the hang of it.
“Our teams have had very good discussions today to move forward on the preparations for this very important visit,” Tillerson told Xi. “As you have noted, this is a relationship that continues to grow and mature on the strength of the relationship between yourself and President Trump.”
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