US Readout of Top Diplomats’ First Meeting Signals Priorities Set by President

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday raised the need to “create a level playing field for trade and investment” in his first meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, according to the State Department.

In the readout by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, both had agreed to “strengthen cooperation in the fields of economy, finance and security,” seen by some as much diluted wording.

Both met for about an hour on the sidelines of a meeting of foreign ministers of the G-20 top economies in Bonn, Germany.

“So nice to see you,” Tillerson said as he shook Wang’s hand, while apologizing for keeping Wang waiting. The top diplomat for the U.S. was late because of another sideline meeting about Syria.

China criticized as a ‘cheater’

While in many ways this seems typical of prior meetings of foreign ministers between Washington and Beijing, it is “unusual” for a secretary of state to advocate the need for a fair playing field in commerce, according to Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“That signals the priority this set of issues is accorded by President Trump,” Glaser told VOA on Friday.  

President Donald Trump has bluntly criticized China as a “cheater” and a currency manipulator, accusing it of unfair practices that have blocked many U.S. exports, and producing a trade imbalance that has killed American jobs.  

Trump also has threatened to impose a comprehensive tax on Chinese imports.

‘One-China policy’

In the Chinese readout, Beijing said, “The U.S. side made it clear that it would continue to adhere to the one-China policy,” which is absent in the State Department’s readout.  

“There is the classic testing of intentions on big issues, to get a quick read where the other stands,” said Center for the National Interest Director of Defense Studies Harry Kazianis.

“They set the foundation for the future and are critically important,” Kazianis added.

China pressed over North Korea

Notably, North Korea’s threats are both highlighted by Tillerson and his Chinese counterpart. Washington pressed Beijing to help assert more control over North Korea after a series of nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

Acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday in Bonn that Tillerson “urged China to use all available tools to moderate North Korea’s destabilizing behavior.”

North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan on February 12, followed by strong international condemnation, including that of the U.N. Security Council.  

Wang told Tillerson the U.S. and China have joint responsibilities to maintain global stability, adding common interests between the two countries far outweigh their differences.

One of the channels to manage U.S.-China relations is the bilateral Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), an annual high-level gathering for two countries to discuss a wide range of regional and global issues.

It started under the George W. Bush administration as the Strategic Economic Dialogue and was later upgraded by former President Barack Obama after he took office.

A different approach

Some regional scholars expect the Trump administration to veer from the long-standing U.S. approach, though, and downsize such a mechanism, or even end it.

“I would be somewhat surprised if the S&ED has any future,” Atlantic Council resident senior fellow Robert Manning told VOA.

“It has become a somewhat hollow bureaucratic ritual, a checklist for the vast sweep of U.S.-China bilateral issues,” said Manning, adding the “structure and content” of relations between Washington and Beijing is “at a tipping point.”

Manning said the key is to identify a few core issues that can define the character of the relationship. “Finding a formula for reciprocity is key to a sustainable economic relationship,” he said.  

A change in S&ED

Proponents of continuing the S&ED said it mobilizes bureaucracies on both sides, promotes interagency coordination, and helps to increase cooperation in areas where the U.S. and China have shared interests.  

“My guess is that it will continue in some form, but will be much smaller and policy-focused,” said Glaser.  

“This administration wants to see progress on a much more fair trade relationship,” said Kazianis, adding “if Beijing is willing to work toward a more equitable and fair trade relationship, I would assume this would continue. If not, it could very well be downsized or disregarded all together.”

The first year will be rocky and it may be until June before there is a functioning policy process, given the chaos in the White House and State Department, according to Manning.  

Tillerson’s deputy and many senior positions at the State Department have yet to be filled.

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