United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as widely reported by regional media, is set to visit China, on the heels of the release of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in 2016 released by the U.S. Department of State, which has been strongly criticised by both the central government and that of the MSAR, and with the signing yesterday by President Trump of a new version of the travel ban, blocking ‘foreign nationals from Sudan, Syria, Iran, Somalia and Yemen’ for 90 days from entering America.
Despite the multiple issues that could cause tensions during Tillerson’s stay in the Mainland, the Head of the Department of Government and Public Administration at the University of Macau, Professor Wang Jianwei, tells Business Daily that he believes the man who formerly led Exxon Mobile will receive a “friendly” welcome from Beijing.
“I think that he’ll probably be warmly received. I’m sure that President Xi Jinping will meet him and all the high level Chinese officials will probably meet him,” states Professor Wang.
This would be in contrast to the meeting that took place on February 27 in Washington between Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi and President Trump, in which Yang “had an opportunity to say ‘hi’ to the President before he left,” according to White House spokesperson Sean Spicer.
“I guess Secretary Tillerson will be met by Xi Jinping probably longer than the meeting between Yang and Trump,” notes the professor.
Marking the first visit by the Secretary of State to the country, after a trip mid-February to Europe as his first official visit abroad, it sets a tone “meaning that U.S.-China relations […are…] back on a regular basis for high level exchanges,” says the department head.
It could also lay the groundwork for the first face-to-face meeting between the two superpower leaders, speculated about in recent reports.
“That means both sides have the desire to hold a summit at an early date, which is a good sign,” opines the professor.
But in the short term, Tillerson’s visit seeks to, by necessity, revolve around “hot button issues.”
“As you know, North Korea just fired four new missiles and then also the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – a.k.a. North Korea) leader Kim Jong Un’s half brother was assassinated and the deputy minister of foreign affairs of the DPRK just visited China, so I think that there are a lot of things going on in the region,” said the academic, adding that the “South China Sea issue” will “definitely” be discussed.
The assassination took place while half-brother Kim Jong-nam was waiting to board a flight to Macau.
As reports from Reuters come in of dozens of Lotte stores closing down on the Mainland, soon after the company announced it would approve a land swap with the U.S. government allowing South Korea to install the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system, in defence of the increased North Korean threat, China sits in a difficult place, says the professor.
“I think that China is in a kind of dilemma […] China could put itself in a position that it could have very tense relations with both North Korea and South Korea, without getting enough credit from the U.S. side,” in particular given the central government’s stance on THAAD.
According to Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson comments on Monday, China is “firmly opposed to the deployment of THAAD by the U.S. and the ROK (Republic of Korea a.k.a. South Korea) in the ROK. We believe that the deployment disrupts the strategic balance of the region, undermines strategic and security interests of countries in the region, including China, and does harm to the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula.”
So, while pressuring North Korea by banning the import of coal from the country, China also “would hope that the U.S. side would take the security concerns from Beijing into consideration,” notes the professor, opining that “I guess they will ask the U.S. to reconsider,” the deployment.
Meanwhile, the U.S. most likely would “like to speed up the deployment of THAAD before, possibly, South Korea have a new President very soon,” he added.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been embroiled in a corruption scandal that most recently exposed her collusion to cement appliance giant Samsung’s merger of subsidiaries, among other substantial alleged charges. Park has had her powers suspended and is facing a ruling by the Constitutional Court which will determine whether a December impeachment of the President will be upheld, according to regional media.
“This new President could have a very different position on the THAAD issue,” notes the professor, pointing out that that eventuality “of course would be a better situation for China.”
“This is a very complex situation,” he continued, “and all the sides involved don’t have a clear win-win strategy.”
To top it all, a joint large-scale military exercise between the U.S., Japan and South Korea is scheduled to take place in the near future “which will once again cause tension on the Korean Peninsula”.
The ‘Korean Peninsula’ issue will largely overshadow all others during Tillerson’s visit, opines the academic, noting that regarding the “annual ritual” that is the Human Rights Practices report, it won’t even come up, given that it won’t “be a major concern for Tillerson […] because the human rights issue is not a top priority for President Trump.”
However, the stance of the President, focused more on “his domestic agenda and being busy with domestic affairs” – and with Tillerson visiting Europe and not Asia first, contrary to when Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State and President Obama visited China in 2009, his first year in office – a President Xi-President Trump visit, on either’s soil “is still very uncertain” this year, points out the professor, noting that “probably they will find a third place to meet, most likely “when there is a multilateral meeting.”
Business Daily contacted the United States Embassy in Beijing and the Consulate General of the United States in Hong Kong and Macau for comment but had not received a formal response to enquiries by the time this story went to press.