Shadow Government

Did Rex Tillerson Misspeak or Intentionally Kowtow to China?

During his visit to Beijing last weekend, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a strange move — adopting Chinese verbiage to characterize the U.S.-China relationship.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson takes his seat for a meeting with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (not in picture) on the sidelines of a gathering of Foreign Ministers of the G20 leading and developing economies at the World Conference Center in Bonn, western Germany, February 17, 2017. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson takes his seat for a meeting with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (not in picture) on the sidelines of a gathering of Foreign Ministers of the G20 leading and developing economies at the World Conference Center in Bonn, western Germany, February 17, 2017. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

During his visit to Beijing last weekend, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a strange move — adopting Chinese verbiage to characterize the U.S.-China relationship. Both before and after his meetings with his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Tillerson said that “the U.S.-China relationship has been guided by an understanding of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” In using such language, Tillerson adopted wholesale the Chinese definition of U.S.-China relations — repeating nearly verbatim language that Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials have used previously.

China doesn’t use these words because they sound nice (in fact they sound very strange to a native English speaker). They use them because they convey a specific definition of China’s proposed “new model of great power relations” — of accommodation, non-interference, and spheres of influence. Pressing for them is standard-fare for Chinese diplomats ahead of a high-level U.S.-China meeting. And by adopting them, Tillerson has shown that not only will he acquiesce to their request, but also has assented to the Chinese definition of the relationship — a definition that is not in the U.S. interest. This was not lost on Beijing. China’s Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper trumpeted that, with the use of those words, Tillerson has “implicitly endorsed the new model of major power relations.”

This is troubling for a number of reasons.

Trump has been full of bellicose talk on China. But to date, Trump’s tough talk has only been followed by accommodation. Tillerson’s comments did not come in isolation. They follow Trump’s threat to reconsider the “one-China policy,” which ended with him not only reaffirming that policy (the right move, incidentally), but — according to the White House readout of the call, making clear that he did so “at the request of President Xi” — signaling accommodation. China respects strength. But strength actually requires having a strategy and only using tough rhetoric when committed to following through. Empty bellicose rhetoric that isn’t backed by action isn’t strength. It signals weakness.

This pattern shows Beijing that it can ignore the administration’s words. China will likely test the administration’s lines through assertive action — possibly in the South China Sea. Deterrence requires clear and consistent signaling to adversaries about expectations and what is and is not acceptable; the administration’s conflicting statements make deterring bad behavior all the more difficult. And an accomodationist definition of U.S.-China relations will be read by Beijing as a permission slip for greater assertiveness.

Our allies carefully watch the words of U.S. officials on China. The flipside of deterrence — reassurance — similarly requires clear and consistent signaling. While Tilllerson said all the right reassuring lines about our alliances in Tokyo and Seoul, our allies may question those commitments given Tillerson’s words in Beijing. And our friends in Taiwan are now likely to feel doubly burned, believing that the adoption of Beijing’s definition of U.S.-China relations undermines Washington’s support for Taipei, which it is already questioning after the Trump administration’s “one-China” episode.

All of this will make it more difficult to manage the relationship with China. We do need to be tough on China — in some areas, tougher than the Obama administration was. But we have to be smart about how we do that, which includes ensuring that our allies know our commitment to their security is real. And if Beijing sees the Trump administration as a paper Tiger — all roar and no bite — it will be hard persuade them to refrain from assertive behavior that harms U.S. interests, such as on trade, cyber intrusions, or the South China Sea — not to mention adopting policies that would be in the U.S. interest, such as getting tough on North Korea.

Getting the balance right with China is not easy. I sat through many painful hours with Chinese officials negotiating language for statements and remarks ahead of high-level meetings, often in to the wee hours of the night. Beijing pressed hard for the Obama administration to use the very words that Tillerson uttered. We were conscious that any words we chose to adopt would carry a very specific meaning in the Chinese minds, and thus we chose them carefully. Some may not like the balance that was struck, but it stopped well short of where Tillerson went. In its piece lauding Tillerson’s comments, China’s Global Times in fact noted that while China has used the phraseology for some time, there was no record of the Obama administration doing so.

That consciousness was partly based on learning from an early mistake. Ahead of President Barack Obama’s first summit with China in 2009, the Chinese prevailed in including the importance to “respect and accommodate each other’s core interests” in the Presidential Joint Statement. This was a major misstep that — unintentionally — signaled an accomodationist approach to Beijing, and raised alarm bells in allied capitals that we were abandoning them on key issues where they faced threats from China. It took years and lots of hard work to correct those perceptions.

We don’t know the motive behind Tillerson’s choice of words. Was it inadvertent or deliberate? An optimist would hope that it was the former, and that the Trump administration will learn its lesson. But that would require not just refraining from adopting China’s problematic definition of the relationship, and halting empty bellicose rhetoric, but adopting a real strategy for dealing with China. Until that happens, Beijing will take all the wrong lessons.

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Laura Rosenberger served as a foreign-policy advisor for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. Previously, she served for more than a decade in a range of foreign-policy and national security positions at the State Department and National Security Council. Rosenberger's commitment to serving the American people began in 2004 when she joined the State Department as a presidential management fellow. She is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is originally from Pittsburgh and is an avid Steelers fan.

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