Rex Tillerson and James Mattis are talking to their Chinese counterparts. The conversation is just getting started but it appears to be constructive. Their remarks to the press after a recent meeting in Washington with State Councilor Yang Jiechi and General Fang Fenghui should calm Asian fears about potentially destabilizing changes to US policy in the region.
No Panic on North Korea
Mattis addressed concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program by reminding reporters that, “China’s end state on the Korean Peninsula in terms of nuclear weapons is the same as ours, and we continue to work towards that end state.” Tillerson added that the United States and China “affirmed our strong commitment to cooperate, including through the UN, to realize our shared goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
China’s People’s Daily emphasized the need for “continued peace and stability” on the Korean penninsula and “resolving problems through negotiations.” It highlighted a proposal to reconstitute diplomatic talks around a “joint freeze” that would require the United States and its regional allies to stop regular military exercises in return for a halt in North Korean nuclear and missile tests.
Tillerson responded cooly to the “joint freeze” proposal, noting that the United States “will continue to take necessary measures to defend ourselves and our allies.”
Preserving Strategic Stability
The former Exxon executive reiterated his desire to focus on the long-term. He wants to use the new dialogues with China to redefine “how we’re going to engage and how we’re going to live with one another over the next 40 years.” Tillerson announced that “US and Chinese civilian and military teams” will “start discussions in new areas of strategic concern like space, cyberspace, nuclear forces, and nonproliferation issues.”
If those discussions do indeed take place it would represent a significant step forward in US and Chinese efforts to manage technologies both sides see as potent sources of military advantage that could undermine strategic stability.
The People’s Daily, which is owned and operated by the Chinese Communist Party, focused its description of the talks on the issues that could lead to a military conflict rather than the weapons that might be used after it starts. It reported that “the American side indicated the US government adheres to pursuing the one-China policy, that the United States recognizes Tibet is a part of China and that it does not support activities to divide or break up China.”
Neither Tillerson nor Mattis specifically mentioned Taiwan or Tibet, although Tillerson did resurrect traditional US talking points on China’s on human rights record.
Politico reported that the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Adviser and other senior members of the Trump administration are turning to the ancient Greeks for guidance on US-China policy. Hopefully, the impetus is a desire to avoid war, but history buffs with a fixation on the rise and fall of nations can have other motivations. Mattis told the press that “while competition between our nations is bound to occur, conflict is not inevitable.” Steve Bannon, on the other hand, may believe that if the United States and China are destined for war, as Harvard’s Graham Allison suggests, history may hold the key to US victory.
Ancient wisdom is not always the best answer to contemporary problems. The marriage counselor who sends his patients to Plato’s Phaedrus to discover the true meaning of human love is less apt to be successful than the one who helps troubled couples talk through the arguments that drove them apart. Tillerson and Mattis may find it more helpful to review the unsettled history of the US government’s relationship with the Chinese Communist Party than to look for the true cause of human conflict in The History of the Peloponnesian War.
Productive leaders tend to be more interested in the promise of the future than the problems of the past. A dialogue that begins with a frank airing of old grievances can be cathartic. Skilled negotiators can use it to help build trust, encourage compromise and facilitate cooperation. Tillerson’s focus on the next forty years of the US-China relationship is encouraging and unsurprisingly businesslike.
For now, at least, Asia can rest a little easier knowing the governments of the United States and China are willing and able to talk constructively.