Despite a long list of potential pitfalls, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to China, the first by a senior member of the Trump administration, passed off relatively smoothly although there were no tangible gains to show.
On the positive side, there was none of the awkwardness of the kind seen in Washington as President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel held the first summit meeting between two of the West’s biggest allies.
Even a tweet from Trump criticising China the night before Tillerson landed in Beijing did not, at least in public, create any discord.
As Tillerson wrapped up his visit on Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping praised his “active efforts” in making a smooth transition of the U.S.-China relationship to the Trump era.
Tillerson and the Chinese officials he met – Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Councillor Yang Jiechi – struck a positive note, only hinting at differences in their positions.
“For setting up a new tone, it’s a good start,” said Sun Zhe, the co-director of the China Initiative of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
“It seems that Donald Trump’s administration is coming back to the normal track, trying to work with China to solve problems.”
No formal agreements were announced in the visit, although the two sides said they would work together on North Korea and countering its rapidly developing nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
Wrapped up in the tightly scripted proceedings, however, was a sense that the world’s two biggest economies were warily testing each other out as the new administration settles down in Washington. They seemed to be reserving airing of differences for another occasion.
The potential points of conflict are many, some inherited and some that have come up since Trump took office in January. The United States has started to deploy missile defences in South Korea that China views as a threat, Washington believes Beijing could do more to rein in Pyongyang’s weapons programs, and prominent Trump administration officials and Trump himself have bashed China’s trade practices.