BEIJING — U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Beijing on Saturday for discussions focused on trade and North Korea, along with preparations for a visit by President Donald Trump in November.
Tillerson is making his second visit in office to the world’s No. 2 economy and chief American rival for influence in Asia, and increasingly, the world. He is scheduled to meet Saturday with top Chinese officials including senior foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and President Xi Jinping.
Relations between Beijing and Washington are seen as more crucial than ever with the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles entering a new, dangerous phase as its leader, Kim Jong Un, and Trump exchange personal insults and threats of war with no sign of a diplomatic solution.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang on Friday said talks would centre on “issues regarding the improvement of bilateral ties, President Trump’s visit to China within the year as invited by President Xi, and international and regional issues of common concerns.”
Trump has been pressing for tougher measures on Pyongyang from China, the North’s chief trading partner and source of aid and diplomatic support.
Although adamantly opposed to measures that could bring down Kim’s regime, Beijing appears increasingly willing to tighten the screws in agreeing to tough new United Nations sanctions that would substantially cut foreign revenue for the isolated North.
On Thursday, Beijing ordered North Korean-owned businesses and ventures with Chinese partners to close by early January, days after it said it would cut off gas and limit shipments of refined petroleum products, effective Jan. 1. It made no mention of crude oil, which makes up the bulk of Chinese energy supplies to North Korea and is not covered by the U.N. sanctions.
China has also banned imports of North Korean coal, iron and lead ore, and seafood since early September.
Still, Washington hopes China will exert even greater pressure, even while Beijing says the impasse can’t be solved by sanctions alone and calls on Washington to cool its rhetoric and open dialogue with Pyongyang.
Other than North Korea, the U.S. and China have other security concerns to address. They remain at odds over Beijing’s military buildup and assertive claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Tillerson is also expected to restate concerns about China’s massive trade surplus with the U.S. — $347 billion last year — and what American companies say are unfair barriers to investment, including pressure to hand over their technology.
Washington wants Beijing to make good on its promise to let market forces have a bigger role in its economy, give equal treatment to foreign and Chinese companies and roll back state industry’s dominance.
Tillerson will also be laying the groundwork for Trump’s planned visit to China in November that will come just weeks after Xi is expected to receive a new five-year term as leader of the ruling Communist Party.
Despite his tough criticism of China’s trade practices, Trump has forged a personal connection with Xi over phone calls and while hosting him at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in April, where they agreed on four high-level dialogues to cover various aspects of relations. In a prelude to his trip to Beijing, Trump met Thursday with Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong, who was attending the inaugural dialogue on people-to-people ties in Washington.
The November meeting of the two leaders will be grander and more choreographed than the informal talks in Florida that were most memorable for Trump’s ordering a missile strike on Syria and then informing Xi about it afterward as they ate chocolate cake.
Tillerson, facing criticism at home for his muted impact as the top U.S. diplomat, may also be seeking to put his own stamp on the relationship. He surprised some observers during his first official visit to China in March when he employed China’s own words to characterize relations between the sides — language the Obama administration had largely rejected as an attempt by Beijing to establish a type of moral parity between the sides.
While Chinese state media hailed that as a breakthrough in relations, observers questioned whether the move had been intentional or whether Tillerson, who was travelling with only a small group of relatively inexperienced advisers, had simply been underprepared for his meetings.
Associated Press writers Joe McDonald in Beijing and Mathew Pennington in Washington contributed to this story.