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What to Expect From Secretary Of State Rex Tillerson’s Trip to China

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will travel to China on March 18 to meet with top-ranking Chinese officials and begin learning the intricacies of managing the U.S.’s complicated relationship with China.

China is waiting for clarity and consistency from President Trump. Trump’s phone call Chinese President Xi Jinping in February eased some of the tensions that arose after he took a call from Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, in January. However, China still wants to know how serious the U.S is about helping Japan and South Korea defend themselves against North Korea and its nuclear and ballistic missile development.

Beijing officials will tell Tillerson and others that China will act responsibly to restrain North Korea, but they will most likely dispute the need for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system that the U.S. and South Korea are planning to build. They will also restate China’s claim to sovereignty in the South China Sea and remind Tillerson how economic agreements between the U.S. and China benefit American manufacturers, as well as importers on both sides.

Tillerson’s recent discussions on reaffirming a military alliance with Japan, not to mention his visit to South Korea to discuss THAAD and mutual defense against threats from the north, are not likely to sit well with China.

China will say it backs U.N. sanctions against North Korea but avoid agreeing to put more pressure on the Kim Jong-un regime.

“I think Secretary Tillerson will make the usual representations in Beijing, namely China’s unwillingness to rein in North Korea and its South China Sea islandbuilding,” says Sean King, Senior Vice President of New York political consultancy Park Strategies. “I suspect his hosts will listen politely but give no ground on either issue.”

Tillerson’s visit will lay the groundwork for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S. in April, during which he will presumably be meeting President Trump for the first time. Both parties want to avoid any surprises that will further set back U.S.-China relations.

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