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Tillerson's East Asia tour holds promise

By Shen Dingli (China Daily) Updated: 2017-03-16 07:56

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, unlike Secretary of Defence James Mattis, will visit China as well as Japan and the Republic of Korea during his tour of East Asia from Wednesday.

And since Tillerson' tour kicks off at a time when China and the US are working closely on a possible meeting between President Xi Jinping and United States President Donald Trump, his visit has drawn much attention.

The US media have reported the two leaders are likely to meet in early April. Apparently, the two sides have narrowed their differences since Trump's conversation with Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen on the phone soon after taking office. Later Trump promised to abide by the one-China policy.

Tillerson and Mattis have made efforts to keep China-US relations on track. Tillerson is a former business leader, and Mattis is a former military officer. They are more familiar with the importance of the one-China principle in one of the most important bilateral relations in the world. Perhaps because of their efforts, Trump reassured Xi during their conversation on the phone on Feb 10 that the US will follow and respect the one-China policy.

But China-US relations still face challenges, especially in regional security and bilateral trade. De-escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula and preventing the Democratic People's Republic of Korea from developing nuclear missiles and other weapons, as well as dealing with the problem of deploying the US' Terminal High Altitude Air Defence anti-missile system on ROK soil are the key issues that Tillerson is expected to address during his visit to China.

At Wednesday's press conference, Premier Li Keqiang said China is consistent on its position of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, and that peace at "doorstep" is a top concern for China.

To counter the DPRK threat, the ROK is under increasing pressure to bolster its defence. But THAAD may be the wrong recipe in the Seoul's defence mix to guard against Pyongyang's perceived missile threat. Besides, THAAD is seen as a political and strategic US ploy to contain China and Russia.

China and the ROK may be at odds because of THAAD, but at the root of the problem are the DPRK and the US. Arguably, anti-ballistic missile systems are the best defence against a missile threat. But such anti-ballistic missile systems should have a limited range, because excessive defence arrangements by any country coupled with the US' strategic offense capability can only be seen as a provocative strategic move.

Tillerson's upcoming visit to China and State Councilor Yang Jiechi's recent visit to the US can be seen as efforts to pave the way for a meeting between Xi and Trump, where the two leaders are likely to discuss how to advance China-US strategic talks. As such, the DPRK nuclear issue and THAAD's deployment should stimulate, rather than prevent, Beijing and Washington to find new cooperative means to reduce the threat.

Trump was elected on his promise to "make America great again". There is nothing wrong with that. However, Trump should realize that China-US trade relations have their own balance and logic, and it is too simplistic to calculate the importance of bilateral trade by just using the import-export volume.

The Trump administration should also realize the road to a greater America couldn't be achieved without China. By promoting Chinese exports to the US, rather than imposing heavy taxes on Chinese products, the Trump administration could boost US manufacturing and achieve a win-win result for the two sides. Moreover, the two countries should complete the China-US Bilateral Investment Treaty negotiation as soon as possible now that the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement ceases to be a stumbling block.

Beijing and Washington have much to gain in working together to meet the myriad challenges facing the world. After riding out the initial uncertainty due to Trump's faulty handling of the Taiwan question, the two sides should work together to sort out the outstanding issues. And there is no greater platform than high-level institutional talks between the top leaders to do so, and Tillerson's visit to China could prepare the groundwork for that.

The author is a professor at and associate dean of the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University.

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