Trump anti-China tweet gives Rex Tillerson a fresh wall to climb

Tom Phillips in Beijing
Rex Tillerson signs a wall of the dining facility on Camp Bonifas during his South Korea visit. Photograph: Planet Pix via/REX/Shutterstock

Donald Trump took his latest online swipe at China’s leaders as his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, flew into Beijing to finalise plans for a high-stakes summit designed to soothe tensions after months of bad blood and uncertainty.

Trump is expected to host Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach on 6-7 April for an informal “no necktie” encounter similar to the 2013 Sunnylands summit between Barack Obama and the Communist party chief.

Tillerson arrived in China’s capital on Saturday tasked with making final preparations for that presidential tête-à-tête.

American journalists have been largely excluded from the visit but Chinese state media said Tillerson met with foreign minister Wang Yi to exchange views on “issues concerning China-US relations and regional security”. He is also expected to meet China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, and Xi.

But on the eve of Tillerson’s two-day visit, during which he is also expected to call on Beijing to step up pressure on North Korea over its nuclear programme, Trump risked complicating those talks with his latest 140-character rebuke to China’s leaders.

“North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years. China has done little to help!” the US president wrote on Twitter in a message that is likely to anger and unnerve Beijing.

Paul Haenle, the national security council’s China director under George W Bush and Barack Obama, said US officials would be concerned about the possibility of “totally off-message” late-night tweets marring Xi’s stay in Mar-a-Lago.

“His rash way of dealing with things could offend the Chinese and could offend personally Xi Jinping ... It’s the Trump factor,” he said.

“It is so important to the Chinese that their leader is being treated with real respect. If he travels there and then something happens that appears to be disrespectful to Xi Jinping that could play very badly in the domestic politics here.”

Trump’s shock election sparked fears that US-China relations were entering a new era of confrontation. In books and interviews, on the stump and on Twitter, the billionaire has spent years berating Beijing over everything from currency manipulation to political repression.

During Xi’s last trip to the US, in 2015, Trump accused China’s leader of crippling American industry by devaluing the Chinese currency and called on Obama to feed him “a double-sized Big Mac”.

However, tensions have subsided following President Trump’s first phone call with Xi last month when he backed away from threats to challenge Beijing’s claim over Taiwan.

Experts say they are encouraged that after months of simmering discord Xi and Trump are preparing to thrash it out at the so-called Winter White House.

“I think it actually has the potential to be quite a game-changing moment,” said Orville Schell, the head of the centre on US-China relations at New York’s Asia Society.

“This will allow Trump to exhibit something he has not been able to really put on display in the public foreign policy realm, namely his putative deal-making skills. I think either the meeting will go very well, with some rather surprising deals announced, or it could go completely south. And that would be a very bad sign indeed.”

Haenle, now head of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre in Beijing, said China would see the meeting, which has yet to be officially confirmed, as a chance to bypass the most stridently anti-Beijing voices in Trump’s team.

Trump likely thought that by getting Xi “on his turf” he could kick off efforts to strike a new deal with China. “North Korea will be at the top of the list … and rebalancing the economic relationship is going to be huge,” said Haenle.

Speaking in Seoul on Friday, Tillerson warned that a pre-emptive US military strike against North Korea was an option and said Washington’s “strategic patience” with Pyongyang had run out.

Schell said it was possible the Mar-a-Lago summit would see “some big breakthrough” on the issue. “I think it is a long shot but it is possible that Trump could just say to Xi, ‘Listen, you and I have a lot of important things to do together. This is something that is important to us ... what do you want?”

Haenle expected Xi to bring a list of “gestures” such as infrastructure investment or market access that would allow Trump to emerge from the summit and tweet: “Xi Jinping came and I got X!”.

But he doubted China would do more on North Korea, with foreign minster Wang Yi recently describing Beijing and Pyongyang as being as close as “lips and teeth”. “The US and China are in very different places right now, at least in terms of the rhetoric that we are hearing.”