Tillerson and Xi. U.S. State Department photo

Trump’s Top Diplomat Goes to China, Promptly Bends Over

Rex Tillerson gives in immediately


U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson quickly caved in his first official meeting with China’s president on March 18, 2017, tacitly accepting China’s positions on Taiwan, the South China Sea and democracy.

Tillerson’s acquiescence belies his boss Pres. Donald Trump’s erratic belligerence toward China on Twitter. Trump’s inconsistent rhetoric may seem tough at times, but his diplomacy is undeniably weak, as Tillerson just proved.

Trump has repeatedly attacked Chinese policy in late-night missives to his millions of Twitter followers. “China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea,” Trump tweeted on Jan. 2, 2017. “Nice!”

Never mind that exports are critical to China’s most important national goals — industrializing and adding well-paying jobs. Criticize China’s trade surplus and you also criticize its decades-long program to lift a billion people out of poverty.

Likewise, the Chinese Communist Party takes seriously its responsibility to serve as a check on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. In mid-February 2017, China suspended coal imports from North Korea in order to punish Pyongyang for its development of nuclear-capable missiles.

Despite this, in March 17, 2017, Trump resumed his attacks on Beijing’s approach to Pyongyang. “North Korea is behaving very badly,” Trump tweeted. “China has done little to help!”

Worst of all, on Dec. 2, 2016, Trump — then the president-elect — spoke on the phone with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency,” Trump tweeted. “Thank you!”

It’s official policy in China that Taiwan, an independent country since 1950, is actually merely a breakaway province. Beijing has threatened to invade Taiwan if Taipei ever formally declares its independence. Eager to draw China into the global economy, in 1979 the United States switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, while at the same time formally committing to protect Taiwan from attack — awkwardly threading a very narrow diplomatic needle.

For Beijing, this delicate “one-China” policy is nonnegotiable. As are China’s claims on various disputed islands in the South China Sea and its refusal to democratize, which according to Chinese officials would inevitably lead to societal chaos.

Tillerson’s people and Xi’s. U.S. State Department photo

Following his December blunder, Trump ultimately softened his stance on Taiwan and reaffirmed the one-China policy in early February 2017, following a phone call with Chinese president Xi Xinping.

Trump’s change of heart may have had something to do with China finally granting Trump 38 potentially lucrative business trademarks in China — and with the fact that Trump’s son-in-law was set to get $400 million from a Chinese company.

Taiwan and Trump’s own finances aside, there are still fundamental, likely irreconcilable differences between U.S. and Chinese interests — not the least, America’s theoretical commitment to democracy and human rights. But in his meeting with Xi in Beijing on March 18, 2017, Tillerson signaled his acceptance of Chinese policies, even where they clash with America’s own policies.

He did so by repeating Xi’s own words back to him. In a 2014 meeting with then-U.S. president Barack Obama, Xi had called for “non-confrontation, non-conflict, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” with the United States.

In the carefully-coordinated language of Chinese diplomats, “mutual respect” means the United States accepting policies that Beijing considers non-negotiable — in particular Taiwan’s status, the South China Sea expansion and the hard limits on Chinese democracy.

So it’s telling that, when Tillerson met Xi, he borrowed Xi’s words. The U.S.-China relationship is built on “non-confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect and always searching for win-win solutions,” Tillerson said.

The secretary of state’s comments shocked observers. “This is insane,” tweeted Ananth Krishnan, a China correspondent for India Today. “Tillerson in Beijing word-for-word repeats sentence XI JINPING told Obama.”

To the Chinese, Tillerson’s appropriation of Chinese rhetoric indicates that the United States will accept Beijing’s position on Taiwan, disputed islands and democracy. In other words, whether Tillerson realizes it or not, he caved — more or less following in Trump’s own retreating footsteps.

No wonder Xi seemed so pleased with Tillerson. “I … appreciate your comment that the China-U.S. relationship can only be defined by cooperation and friendship,” Xi told Tillerson.

It’s not clear whether Tillerson, a former oil executive who has no prior government experience, appreciates the implications of his own words any more than Trump, a former reality-T.V. star who also had never served in government, understands the effects his own impulsive tweets can have.

Nor is it clear what the real-world consequences will be as Tillerson’s words reverberate across the diplomatic landscape.

In any event, Tillerson’s rhetorical collapse violates Trump’s own rules for a successful negotiation, which Trump explained in his partially-ghost-written autobiography The Art of the Deal.

“Applying The Art of the Deal to U.S.-PRC diplomacy,” tweeted Andrew Erickson, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. “1. Don’t look desperate. 2. Don’t make preemptive concessions. 3. Promote YOUR *OWN* brand.”

“The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it,” Trump wrote in the 1987 book. “That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead.”

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