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Tillerson Meets With Chinese President To Wrap Up Asia Trip


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has wrapped up his first trip to China representing the Trump administration, and there was one issue that dominated the discussions - North Korea. To get an update on what was discussed and what it means, we're joined now by NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing.

Good morning.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So did either the U.S. or the Chinese side suggest any new solutions to the North Korea issue?

KUHN: Tillerson did not outline any new steps to take. He said there are still steps to take before North Korea is able to put a nuclear warhead on a missile capable of reaching U.S. territory. But he admitted things are getting very dangerous. And that was emphasized today when North Korea, in state media, reported that they had just tested a new high-thrust rocket engine, which could be used on such a missile.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How concerned do you think the Trump administration is about these reports from North Korea? How seriously are they taking them?

KUHN: I'm sure they're taking them very seriously because they don't have a lot of good options. The military option could be catastrophic. On the other hand, Tillerson noted that over the past 20 years, diplomatic solutions have not stopped the North Koreans from getting a bomb. And so there's serious concern as the clock ticks down towards this nuclear breakout scenario.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And obviously, to resolve this, China is crucial. We've heard, in the past, rhetoric from the Trump administration that takes aim at China. Some reports are describing, though, Tillerson as being more conciliatory towards China on this trip. Is that what you saw?

KUHN: It is indeed. Tillerson met with Chinese President Xi Jinping today. And Xi thanked him and praised him for taking an upbeat view of U.S.-China ties. Both sides said they're looking forward to a meeting between Presidents Trump and Xi in Florida in April. And this was sort of surprising given the fact that Trump recently tweeted that China hasn't been very helpful with North Korea.

It also contrasts with Tillerson's remarks during his own confirmation hearing, for example, when he said that the U.S. might blockade China's man-made islands in the South China Sea. But I think a lot of people were really struck by some language that Tillerson used at a press conference on Saturday. Let's hear a piece of that.


REX TILLERSON: Since the historic opening of relations between our two countries more than 40 years ago, the U.S.-China relationship has been guided by an understanding of nonconflict, nonconfrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what was so intriguing about that statement?

KUHN: Well, Lulu, because it was a near-verbatim repetition of China's vision of U.S.-China relations. And at the core of that vision is the idea that the U.S. must treat China as its equal. And generally, the U.S. is not ready to do that.

So some people may feel that either Tillerson gave away too much in order to please his Chinese hosts or that he failed to articulate U.S. policy, perhaps because the U.S. hasn't formulated a complete policy towards China yet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I guess the question is, what does this tell us about the relations with China under Mr. Trump?

KUHN: Well, it shows us, again, that they're very contradictory. They've been oscillating between China-bashing, which Trump did a lot of on the campaign trail, and other talk that he knows China and he thinks he can cut a deal with them. It's a contradiction we've also seen in his Cabinet picks, which include some people who have been very hawkish with China and some which have very close ties to it.

And so Chinese, understandably, feel that the Trump administration is very unpredictable. And that worries them because they don't need distractions. They're heading into a big leadership reshuffle this fall, and they want stable ties.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Beijing.

Thanks so much.

KUHN: You bet, Lulu.