Tillerson and Trump Blow Hot and Cold Over China

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the Great Hall of the People on March 19 in Beijing. Eric Gomez writes that Tillerson’s recent statements in Beijing can be judged against Trump administration policies. When such policies are taken into account, Gomez says, the “diplomatic victory” won by Beijing quickly loses its significance. Lintao Zhang/Getty

This article first appeared on the Cato Institute site.

Remarks made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Beijing caused a collective gnashing of teeth within the foreign policy establishment last week.

At least twice, Tillerson said that the U.S.-China relationship was built on "non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win solutions."

These exact words have often been used by China's President Xi Jinping to describe a "new model of major country relations" between the United States and China.

China watchers based in D.C. rushed to criticize Tillerson's statements for mirroring Xi's language. Writing for Politico, Ely Ratner of the Council on Foreign Relations said that "terms like 'mutual respect' and 'non-confrontation' are code in Beijing for U.S. accommodation of a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia."

A headline in The Washington Post said that Tillerson handed a "diplomatic victory" to China. The article featured quotes from experts such as Bonnie Glaser from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who said, "By agreeing to [mutual respect], the U.S. is in effect saying that it accepts that China has no room to compromise on these issues."

In Foreign Policy, former State Department and National Security Council official Laura Rosenberger argued that U.S. allies in East Asia "may question [U.S.] commitments given Tillerson's wording in Beijing."

The consensus seems to be that Tillerson's statements are bad for the United States and good for China. But this over-inflates the importance of his words.

The reaction to then-President-elect Donald Trump's statements about the "One China" policy offers a useful point of comparison with Tillerson's statements. Hand-wringing over Trump's statements were justified, but the response to Tillerson's statements are overblown.

In a December 2016 interview with Fox News Sunday, Trump suggested that the United States would no longer be bound by its long-standing One China policy "unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade." Trump's statements prompted a strong, mostly negative response from American experts, and rightly so.

The reaction to Trump's One-China policy remarks was justified because of the circumstances at the time. The interview came shortly after news broke about a precedent-breaking phone call between Trump and the president of Taiwan, which also caused considerable angst among China watchers. The phone call and One-China policy remarks raised serious questions about the future of U.S.-China relations because there was no policy record to judge these actions against.

Related: Will Trump's tough approach to North Korea's Kim Jong Un work?

Supporters of Trump's behavior argued that his status as president-elect muted the impact of his actions, and since taking office he has taken steps to reassure China that a significant change in American policy toward Taiwan is not likely.

However, at the time the actions were taken it was prudent for China watchers to account for worst-case scenarios, given the lack of policy to compare the actions against. Even though worst-case predictions turned out to be false, the shadow of uncertainty that loomed over the incoming Trump administration meant that such dire assessments could not be ruled out.

Tillerson's recent statements in Beijing can be judged against Trump administration policies. When such policies are taken into account, the "diplomatic victory" won by Beijing quickly loses its significance.

The first elements of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, which Beijing stringently opposes, arrived in South Korea shortly before Tillerson's trip to the region.

A few days before Tillerson's statements, an aircraft carrier strike group operating under the command of the U.S. Navy's Third Fleet arrived in South Korea to conduct military exercises alongside the South Korean navy. According to U.S. Pacific Command, this marks the first time that a carrier strike group under Third Fleet command has operated alongside allies in the Western Pacific since World War II.

The Trump administration is also threatening to put greater economic pressure on China, despite its early decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which many China watchers saw as a boon for Beijing.

A recent report by Reuters claims the administration is considering "sweeping sanctions aimed at cutting North Korea off from the global financial system," which could apply to Chinese banks and companies that do business with North Korea.

In his confirmation hearing, Robert Lighthizer, Trump's nominee for U.S. trade representative, said he would put more pressure on China in response to its economic practices that hurt the U.S. economy.

The foreign policy establishment is overreacting to Tillerson's statements in Beijing. There are plenty of U.S. policies, military movements and economic rhetoric that point to a reality that is divorced from Tillerson's rhetoric.

Words do matter for Beijing, and it may take succor from Tillerson's words, but this is unlikely to ease its concerns about THAAD deployment, deepening U.S.-South Korean ties and the gathering storm clouds of American trade policy.

Eric Gomez is a policy analyst for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

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