Xi, Tillerson vow to work towards closer US-China ties despite tensions

During US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first official trip to China Saturday, the two countries vowed to work together on reining in nuclear-armed North Korea.VIDEO: REUTERS
China's President Xi Jinping (right) meets US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 19, 2017.
China's President Xi Jinping (right) meets US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 19, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (REUTERS, AFP) – Chinese President Xi Jinping and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pledged in talks on Sunday (March 19) that the two powers would work to strengthen a relationship that has been unsettled by disputes over North Korea and trade.  

Xi met Tillerson in Beijing just hours after nuclear-armed North Korea tested US-China unity anew with a provocative rocket engine test, and with negotiations under way for a potential Xi summit next month with President Donald Trump in the United States. 

China has been irritated at being repeatedly told by Washington to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes and the US decision to base an advanced missile defence system in South Korea.  

Beijing is also deeply suspicious of US intentions towards self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its own, with the Trump administration crafting a big new arms package for the democratic island that is bound to anger China.  

But meeting in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, those issues were brushed aside by Xi and Tillerson, at least in front of reporters, with Xi saying Tillerson had made a lot of efforts to achieve a smooth transition in a new era of relations.

“You said that China-US relations can only be friendly. I express my appreciation for this,” Xi said.  

 
 

Xi said he had communicated with President Donald Trump several times through telephone conversations and messages. “We both believe that China-US cooperation henceforth is the direction we are both striving for. We are both expecting a new era for constructive development,” Xi said.  

Tillerson replied that Trump looks forward to enhancing understanding with China and the opportunity for a visit in the future. 

Tillerson said Trump places a “very high value on the communications that have already occurred” between Xi and Trump. 

“And he looks forward to enhancing that understanding in the opportunity for a visit in the future,” Tillerson said. “We know that through further dialogue we will achieve a greater understanding that will lead to a strengthened, strengthening of the ties between China and the United States and set the tone for our future relationship of cooperation.” 

Trump has so far been an unpredictable partner for China, attacking Beijing on issues ranging from trade to the South China Sea and in December by talking to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.  

Before Tillerson arrived in Beijing on Saturday, Trump said North Korea was “behaving very badly” and accused China of doing little to resolve the crisis over the North’s weapons programmes.  

SOME PROGRESS

Speaking in Seoul on Friday, Tillerson issued the Trump administration’s starkest warning yet to North Korea, saying in Seoul that a military response would be “on the table” if Pyongyang took action to threaten South Korean and US forces.  

Still, China and the United States appeared to have made some progress or put aside differences on difficult issues, at least in advance of a planned summit between Xi and Trump.

Both Tillerson and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi struck a more conciliatory tone in their meeting, with Tillerson saying the United States and China would work together to get nuclear-armed North Korea take “a different course”.  

Underscoring the tensions, North Korea conducted a test of a new high-thrust engine at its Tongchang-ri rocket launch station and leader Kim Jong Un said the successful test was “a new birth” of its rocket industry, Pyongyang’s official media said on Sunday.  

North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests and a series of missile launches, in defiance of UN sanctions, and is believed by experts and government officials to be working to develop nuclear-warhead missiles that could reach the United States.

Washington wants China, the North’s neighbour and main trading partner, to use its influence to rein in the weapons programmes.  

China says it is committed to enforcing U.N. sanctions on North Korea, but all sides have a responsibility to lessen tensions and get back to the negotiating table.  

Chinese official also repeatedly say they do not have the influence over North Korea that Washington and others believe, and express fears poverty-struck North Korea could collapse if it were cut off completely, pushing destabilising waves of refugees into northeastern China. 

​The meeting is taking place just hours after a North Korean rocket engine test added new pressure on the big powers to address the threat from Pyongyang.

The North's state news agency KCNA said Kim had overseen the rocket engine test and "emphasised that the whole world will soon witness what eventful significance the great victory won today carries" - a possible warning to Pyongyang's adversaries.

The report hinted the new engine could be used to put a satellite in orbit.

Outside observers say the nuclear-armed Pyongyang's space programme is a fig leaf for military use, as rocket engines are easily re-purposed for missiles.

North Korea is banned by the international community from pursuing nuclear and missile programmes but has defiantly ploughed ahead.

It staged its two latest nuclear tests last year and recently fired off missiles that it described as practice for an attack on US bases in Japan.

- 'Historic significance' -

The test shows North Korea can match "world-level" satellite delivery capabilities, KCNA said Sunday.

"The leader (Kim) noted that the success made in the current test marked a great event of historic significance as it declared a new birth," of North Korea's rocket industry, it added.

En route to Beijing, Tillerson visited US allies Japan and South Korea where he declared Washington would drop the "failed" approach of patient diplomacy with Pyongyang, warning that American military action against the North was "on the table".

But he has taken a markedly milder tone in China - the one country with the most potential leverage on its neighbour North Korea and which favours restraint and diplomacy.

The Xi-Tillerson meeting came with delicate negotiations under way for a potential first summit between Xi and US President Donald Trump next month in the United States.

Trump has been a frequent China critic, and the summit could be crucial in setting a lasting tone in the big-power relationship between the world's two largest economies.

The North's last previous ground test of a high-powered rocket engine was in September, also observed by Kim, who called for more rocket launches to put "geostationary satellites" into orbit.

North Korea is attempting to show it was making progress in developing a long-range inter-continental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States, said Professor Yang Moo Jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

"The North is hinting strongly that it will soon launch a new satellite rocket," he told AFP.

It may also be preparing for a secret intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test using a mobile launcher, Yang added.

North Korea insists that it needs a nuclear and missile capability for self-defence.

It has in years past ramped up sabre-rattling to prompt multi-party diplomatic negotiations, including China and the United States, on eliminating its nukes.

The economically strapped North won food and other aid in return for powering down its nuclear programme, only to restart it later after talks eventually collapsed.