U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s use of phrases and language commonly employed by China’s Communist Party during his first trip to the country as top diplomat has left some regional experts wondering if he may have inadvertently endorsed Beijing’s push for a new “great power relationship.”
Tillerson visited China on Saturday and Sunday for talks with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, State Councillor Yang Jiechi and President Xi Jinping.
According to readouts and statements during the trip, Tillerson referred to the U.S.-China relationship as “built on nonconfrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and always searching for win-win solutions” — well-worn Chinese government catchphrases known to Sinologists for their implicit meanings.
It was this language, often used to symbolize key concepts by Beijing, that took some experts by surprise. The phrase “mutual respect,” for one, could be taken to mean respect for what China refers to as its “core interests.”
These core interests include, among others, territorial and sovereignty issues, such as the dispute over the Japanese-administered, Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea as well as the row over man-made fortified islands in the contested South China Sea. Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force, if necessary — is also a core interest.
These “innocuous-looking set phrases are imbued with coded meaning by Chinese officials, hence ‘mutual respect’ implies recognition of so-called core interests and even implicit endorsement of a ‘new model of major power relations,’ ” said Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
In statements released after his meeting with Tillerson, Xi touted cooperation as “the only correct choice” for Sino-U.S. ties.
“The two countries should also enhance coordination on regional hot spot issues, respect each other’s core interests and major concerns and encourage friendly exchanges between the two peoples,” Xi said.
“The joint interests of China and the U.S. far outweigh the differences, and cooperation is the only correct choice for us both,” he added.
China’s state-run media also ran a series of articles and editorials lauding Tillerson’s remarks, saying that the U.S. secretary of state had “implicitly endorsed” Beijing’s “new model of major power relations.”
In one editorial, the Global Times newspaper, known for its nationalist slant, highlighted that Tillerson had twice mentioned the “principle of nonconflict, nonconfrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” It’s report compared this to the Obama administration, which it said had no record of proactively mentioning it.
The Obama White House had been cautious about echoing the “new model of great power relations” line, mainly out of fear that doing so would be tantamount to endorsing China’s efforts to alter the status quo in the Asia-Pacific region by force.
Graham called the Chinese attempts to inject their own meaning into Tillerson’s words “the lexical equivalent of a Trump handshake — a dressed-up dominance maneuver.”
U.S. allies in the region — namely Tokyo and Seoul — have been nervously watching how the Trump administration deals with a rising China.
The president’s approach thus far, however, has been anything but encouraging.
Trump has flip-flopped on Washington’s “One China” policy toward Taiwan, threatened a trade war with Beijing and lambasted it for not doing enough on North Korean denuclearization.
Asked if Tillerson was attempting to send a signal to Beijing through his nearly identical phrasing, State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said the secretary was “aware of his word choice.”
“I think he was trying to convey that in his dialogue and our dialogue with China we also want a quote/unquote ‘win-win relationship,’ ” Toner said. “But we’re going to make sure that we press our priorities in that respect.”
But Toner refused to be drawn on whether or not the statements were an attempt at a deal — perhaps on North Korea or the South China Sea — by an administration known for taking an apparently transactional approach to foreign policy.
Tillerson’s remarks, Toner said, were “part of an ongoing conversation.”
Regional security experts were nonplussed by the events.
“While Secretary Tillerson’s trip was premised on good intentions and did build — in some ways — on reassurance from (Defense) Secretary (James) Mattis’ trip last month, there are clearly many in Tokyo and Seoul still wondering how the U.S. will look to engage with China,” said J. Berkshire Miller, a Tokyo-based international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.
According to Miller, the top U.S. diplomat’s visit to Beijing did little to “clear the fog.”
“Tillerson’s objective was to add some balance and calm to a jittery U.S.-China relationship thus far under Trump, but the softer and unclear approach thus far may embolden Beijing to feel it can push harder for a ‘G-2’ or ‘major power relations’ construct that it desperately wants, despite traditional resistance from the U.S. and its regional allies,” Miller said.
Still, others said Beijing’s push to capitalize on Tillerson’s remarks meant little in practice.
“It’s no surprise that the Global Times would try and spin Tillerson’s comments to suggest they represent an endorsement of the new model of great power relations, but that doesn’t make it any more real,” said David Capie, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
“I think the fuss about the language in the statement is a bit of a storm in a teacup,” Capie said. “Beijing might like to claim special ownership of terms like ‘mutual respect’ and ‘win-win,’ but they cut both ways. The U.S. has core interests in Asia it wants respected too.”
Indeed, Tillerson’s verbal slip-ups aside, the rookie diplomat almost certainly took a tougher line with Beijing behind closed doors, likely in a bid to allow China to save face.
In a statement, Tillerson alluded to this stance, noting the importance of upholding what he referred to as the “rules-based order in dealing with maritime disputes and freedom of navigation and overflight.”
Effectively a nod to protecting the status quo in the South and East China seas, where Beijing is embroiled in territorial disputes, this reference was likely to hearten Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has also taken a similarly tough line on Chinese maritime aggression.
According to Capie, while China will be delighted with Tillerson’s gesture on cooperation, “Beijing is not naive enough to think serious differences are going to magically disappear.”
What’s more, he said, the focus on the language also risks missing a bigger issue.
“The Obama administration might not have used terms like ‘mutual respect’ and ‘win-win cooperation,’ but putting that aside you could argue there’s actually an awful lot of continuity in the Trump administration’s Asia policy so far,” Capie said. “Signs that the new administration recognizes it has to work with China are surely an improvement over some of the dangerous and confrontational talk that characterized Trump’s first few weeks in office.”
But regardless of any improvements, some experts see the Trump administration’s growing pains as unforced errors that give China an upper hand in the rivals’ relationship.
“Either way, it shows real inexperience as Beijing will simply pocket it as a precedent for leverage,” the Lowy Institute’s Graham said.
“It will also fuel allies’ fear about the U.S. and China going over their heads, particularly Japan — unpicking the reassurance messages carefully given by Mattis, earlier, and by Tillerson himself.”