Tillerson's Deference to Beijing or Unfortunate Rookie Mistake?

“You said that China-US relations can only be friendly,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sunday. “I express my appreciation for this.”

Beijing could not be more pleased with Tillerson’s choice of words. Chinese state media is now crowing because the American diplomat, who seemed resolute in Tokyo and Seoul, appears to have turned deferential in Beijing—perhaps unwittingly. In the Chinese capital, he repeated in public the preferred Chinese formulation of relations between the two powers. On the preceding day at a press conference with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Tillerson said ties between the two countries were guided by “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.”

Global Times, the nationalist tabloid controlled by People’s Daily, cited unnamed “analysts” who declared that Tillerson, by uttering this phrase, “implicitly endorsed the new model of major power relations,” Beijing’s buzz phrase adopted in 2010.

By incorporating Beijing’s diplomatic terminology into his remarks, Tillerson either exposed a glaring deficiency in the staffing for the visit or a dramatic shift in American policy. It is likely the former. Based on any number of previous statements, it is clear Washington has no plans to cozy up to Beijing or to refrain from confronting aggressive Chinese behavior.

On the other hand, the US Secretary of State looks a bit uninitiated and, worse, Beijing will be disappointed that American behavior in the wake of Tillerson’s remarks will not conform to the expectations he created—a disappointment that will complicate relations at a crucial time. Tillerson’s remarks, in short, make him look like a “rookie,” the Wall Street Journal’s accurate characterization of him. 

The Obama administration, in its early years, rarely repeated China’s formulations of Sino-US ties, and it completely avoided doing so as time progressed and relations deteriorated.

America’s China-watching community immediately pounced on Tillerson after the Saturday presser. The Washington Post used this as its headline on Sunday: “In China Debut, Tillerson Appears to Hand Beijing a Diplomatic Victory.”

Tillerson’s use of “mutual respect,” said Bonnie Glaser of the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, is acceptance of “a litany of issues that China views as nonnegotiable.” “By agreeing to this,” she stated, “the US is in effect saying that it accepts that China has no room to compromise on these issues.”

“China’s characterization of the US-China relationship, as exemplified by those phrases, portends US decline and accommodation,” said Ely Ratner, who worked for Vice President Biden, to the Post. “Tillerson using these phrases buys into this dangerous narrative, which will only encourage Chinese assertiveness and raise doubts in the region about the future of US commitment and leadership in Asia.” 

Overreaching headlines and commentary aside, it’s near certain that the new secretary of state, like Obama administration officials before him, will not feel particularly constrained by Beijing’s interpretations of phrases he used. Still, it would have been far better for Tillerson to have employed the diplomatic terminology that affirms the US’s position rather than repeating phrases that Ratner properly calls Chinese “platitudes and propaganda.” 

When it comes to diplomacy, words matter. At this consequential time, American leaders and diplomats must demonstrate that they are ready for the global stage by saying what they mean and being clear. In particular, the Trump administration should demonstrate a nuanced understanding of its delicate relationship with China, but in any event our regional allies need to see that Washington will no longer defer to China’s increasing hostility and aggression in its peripheral seas, border areas, cyberspace, and elsewhere.

Every American administration in its early days tries to establish cooperative relations with Beijing, and President Trump’s will not be an exception. Unfortunately, friendly words, misspoken or intentional, will not persuade Chinese leaders to abide by international norms.

Like those before him, Tillerson will discover this soon enough. 

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