The Trump team’s early forays into Asia couldn’t have gone better. In early February, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis received high praise for his trip to Tokyo and Seoul, reassuring nervous allies that the Trump administration would continue decades of American leadership in Asia. A week later, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe braved a visit to the White House and was rewarded with President Donald Trump reaffirming the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was poised to ride this momentum into Northeast Asia last week, but instead sustained a series of self-inflicted wounds. Before even departing Washington, he broke tradition by not inviting the State Department press corps on his plane, needlessly damaging relations with the media and forgoing the opportunity to better explain the contours of his mission. (“I’m not a big media press access person,” he said later, as if the only purpose of talking to reporters would be to serve his own agenda. “I personally don’t need it.”)
He then decided against a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo in what would have been a simple and routine gesture to thank his overseas diplomats for their hard work. On his next stop in Seoul, Tillerson reportedly snubbed his hosts by turning down a dinner invitation due to what a South Korean official later descried as “fatigue.” Even as the secretary dismissed this characterization—a day later, because there was no American press around to rebut the claim—the occurrence of such a misunderstanding at all between two close allies was itself remarkable.
All this would have been bad enough. But Tillerson’s final act in Beijing was the most controversial and potentially damaging. Before meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the U.S. secretary of state parroted well-known Chinese Communist Party slogans, avowing that the United States and China have “a very positive relationship built on non-confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect and always searching for win-win solutions.” As if to underscore the point, he repeated them again after the meeting. The passages were nearly identical to President Xi Jinping’s own words standing aside President Barack Obama in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in November 2014.
While it’s easy to dismiss these phrases as diplomatic pablum, you can be sure that China’s leaders took note. As U.S. diplomats know, terms like “mutual respect” and “non-confrontation” are code in Beijing for U.S. accommodation of a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia, requiring that the United States back off and respect China’s demands over issues including Taiwan, Tibet, the South China Sea and regional dominance more broadly. As for “win-win,” there’s a well-known joke among China experts that what it really means is China wins twice.
No surprise then, that the populist state-run newspaper Global Times raved that Tillerson had shown “unprecedented positive tendencies,” moderating his tone on North Korea and rightfully prioritizing U.S.-China relations over other thorny issues. Tillerson may have been more pointed in private, but repeating these phrases publicly signaled to China—and, don’t forget, America’s nervous allies and partners throughout Asia—that the Trump administration was willfully or unintentionally bowing to Beijing’s conception of a China-led region. (When pressed at the State Department’s daily briefing on Monday, acting spokesperson Mark Toner said of Tillerson: “He was aware of his word choice.”) Chinese analysts were quick to point out that Tillerson’s comments “will undermine U.S. authority among its allies” by exacerbating a persistent concern in Asia that Washington will ultimately capitulate to China’s rise. This comes after other actions by the Trump administration—such as withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and remaining silent on Chinese provocations in the South China Sea—that are amplifying China’s influence at America’s expense.
Tillerson’s mishap also revealed ongoing deficiencies in the Trump administration, including a genuine lack of Asia expertise among senior officials that is being magnified by the perpetuation of skeleton staffs at key national security agencies. Secretary Mattis had a more successful maiden trip to the region in part because he conveyed continuity in U.S. policy, likely aided by his decades of government experience. Mattis has also been known to roam the halls of the Pentagon to get more details from mid-level career officials who penned his background briefings, while Tillerson is reportedly asking for rudimentary two-page memos and shunning his bureaucracy. To make matters worse, the State Department still has neither a deputy secretary nor an assistant secretary for Asia, the two most important posts covering the region in the Obama administration. Moreover, the lack of coordination and process inside the White House has exposed an administration that is far behind in developing a coherent approach to Asia, suffering instead from careless and contradictory messaging.
The good news is they will inevitably get another bite at the apple. Among Secretary Tillerson’s principal charges in Beijing was to lay the groundwork for President Xi to visit the United States in early April. The Trump administration still has the chance to define its own way forward for U.S. China policy, which became overly tilted toward acquiescence in the final years of the Obama administration. Trump’s tough comments on the campaign trail suggest a president ready to reset the goalposts toward a policy less permissive of Chinese assertiveness and unfair trade practices. That could be a good thing.
But Tillerson’s flap in Beijing demonstrated that the administration remains ill-prepared to handle a leader-level meeting with China. As acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton acknowledged in her preview of the trip, it’s still “early days” in the Trump administration and much remains to be resolved on Asia policy. To avoid another damaging interaction with China, any such presidential summit should be postponed for at least another month until national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster—whose experience is primarily fighting wars in the Middle East—has had the chance to run a comprehensive interagency process to put America’s China policy in good order. As it stands, this simply isn’t possible without a deputy secretary of state or undersecretary of defense for policy. Narrow policy reviews on singular issues like North Korea and trade reciprocity cannot substitute for a comprehensive, coherent and coordinated approach to a massive subject like China. Until then, it is premature to welcome President Xi to the United States.
In addition, a senior U.S. official should give a major speech prior to any Xi visit outlining the administration’s approach to Asia. Keeping the region guessing about Washington’s intentions and priorities is leading to all sorts of unhelpful behavior as countries increasingly look to China in the face of a mercurial and unpredictable United States. Australia, one of America’s closest allies, is Exhibit A for the kind of troubling and unprecedented debates that are emerging about whether it is time to prepare for a China-led future, as Australia’s revered former ambassador to China argued last week in Sydney. Without greater explication, a highly scripted Trump-Xi meeting, as it assuredly would be, would only reinforce these trends.
If delaying the meeting proves impossible, it is imperative that the visit be confined to Washington, not held at Mar-a-Lago, as currently rumored. Hosting Xi Jinping in Florida would trade substance for fete, feed the narrative of U.S. obeisance to China, and hazardously shower Xi with prestige and legitimacy. This would constitute a far greater foul than anything Tillerson said in Beijing.
The Trump administration will get a do-over on China policy when Xi eventually visits. But this shouldn’t be rushed. Senior posts first need to be filled at State and Defense. Public statements have to be consistent and coordinated. A China strategy should be developed, embedded in a comprehensive approach to the region. The media has to be more effectively managed to shape and sell the message. And the administration needs to spell out its overall approach to Asia to build confidence that it knows what it is doing. As of today, Trump isn’t ready for Xi, and Tillerson’s rhetorical blunder should serve as a wake-up call that there’s still work to do on several fronts.