President Xi Jinping called talks with Tillerson “productive” and said he believes ties can “move ahead in a constructive fashion in the new era.”
Tillerson met Xi at the conclusion of his six-day Asia tour, where he sought to pressure China on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and defuse one of the biggest security threats facing the Trump administration.
He told Xi, during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square, that President Trump places a “very high value on the communications that have already occurred” between the two leaders and looks forward to enhanced understanding with a potential future visit.
But in a sign of the challenges that remain, hours before the discussion, North Korea defiantly announced it had tested a rocket engine that its state media said had “historic significance.”
The test came a day after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pushed back against a stronger U.S. line on North Korea and reiterated the country’s desire for talks.
Xi emphasized to Tillerson the need for more coordination on “regional hotspots,” according to a statement from China’s Foreign Ministry.
On Thursday in Tokyo, Tillerson called for a “new approach” to dealing with North Korea. The next day in Seoul, he declared “all options” on the table, including a military strike.
By Saturday in Beijing, he softened his tone and spoke of working with countries to bring North Korea to a place “we can begin a dialogue.”
China, as North Korea’s largest trading partner and only major ally, holds the greatest leverage over its reclusive neighbor. But Beijing has refused to cripple the country’s economy out of fears of a refugee flood across the border and the loss of a buffer zone between South Korea and U.S. troops stationed there.
Tillerson’s visit — the first on Chinese soil by a high-level official under Trump — gave little indication of the new administration’s policies toward a country the president attacked throughout his campaign.
“It has been a very positive relationship built on nonconfrontation, no conflict, mutual respect and always searching for win-win solutions,” Tillerson said Saturday, echoing Xi’s comments at a 2014 meeting with President Obama.
But expectations for the visit were relatively low.
“The willingness to deliver on both sides is quite limited,” said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. “Words are cheap.”
A State Department spokesman suggested the half-hour meeting between Xi and Tillerson touched on disagreements. "Both President Xi and Secretary Tillerson agreed there are opportunities for greater cooperation between China and the United States," the spokesman, Mark Toner, said, "but acknowledged there are, and will be in the future, differences between the two countries."
The meetings were almost more telling in what wasn’t discussed — at least not publicly.
Trump, during his campaign, branded China a currency manipulator, accused it of “raping” the U.S., and pledged steep tariffs. Now that nation, in the face of an increasingly protectionist America, has arisen as a leading proponent of global trade.
A day before the arrival of Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, the Saudi Arabian king and his thousand-person entourage signed $65 billion worth of economic and trade deals with China.
And in the same compound on Saturday as Tillerson’s meetings with Chinese officials, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a resounding endorsement of globalization.
Tillerson also made no mention of climate change, a priority in the partnership between China and the previous administration. Obama and Xi last year committed the world’s two largest economies to a Paris climate deal intended to reduce greenhouse gases. Trump has threatened to pull out of it. His budget proposal lacks funding for domestic and international global warming efforts.
“Just months ago, China and the United States were unified as leaders of the pack combating global climate change,” Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, said in a statement. “China has since far surpassed its previous climate ally, leaving the United States woefully behind the rest of the world.”
Tillerson did bring up human rights, surprising some analysts, who didn’t view the issue as a priority for the administration despite Xi’s widespread crackdown on human rights activists and lawyers.
This month, Tillerson abandoned precedent and skipped the launch of an annual human rights report that detailed Chinese abuses. And he’s threatened to pull the U.S. out of the United Nations Human Rights Council unless it undergoes reform.
Tillerson broke with decades of tradition by allowing only one reporter from a conservative outlet to accompany him on his trip, a move that triggered concerns about the message it sends to China about press freedoms. The State Department said the decision was prompted by a desire to save money, although news organizations pay their own way on such trips.
Tillerson laid the foundation for a Florida summit between Xi and Trump in early April, where the two will probably iron out policies in greater detail.
Officials also discussed the recent deployment of a U.S. antiballistic missile system in South Korea; China’s controversial claims to the South China Sea; and Taiwan, which Beijing views as its territory.
Trump initially suggested using Taiwan as a bargaining chip in the relationship with China. But he has since backed down and affirmed long-standing U.S. policy that the democratic island is part of a united China — a major victory for the Communist nation, which considers the issue unassailable.
Tillerson needed to “undo the damage that was done during the campaign and the first days of the administration,” said Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego and a former deputy assistant secretary of State under the Clinton administration. “The great uncertainties are what the U.S. position actually is.”
Meyers is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.
12:55 p.m.: This article has been updated with comment from the State Department.
This article was originally posted at 8 a.m.