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Tillerson To Visit Beijing To Smooth Over Relations After Trump's Rhetoric


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the latest U.S. official whose first job is explaining whether to take the president of the United States literally.


Candidate Donald Trump attacked China for unfair trade policies, even accused China of, quote, "raping the U.S." These days, the president has been a bit quieter.

INSKEEP: And now his secretary of state is in Asia this week, with China as the final stop. Michael Green, once a senior national security official in George W. Bush's White House, was just in Beijing and found some hope there.

MICHAEL GREEN: They see an administration that has different ideological lines, different power centers. Both the Chinese and our allies, the Japanese and Koreans and Australians, would prefer that Rex Tillerson, secretary of defense Mattis, prevail, that their more international, engaged version of American foreign policy is what comes next.

INSKEEP: Help me out here because for a lot of Americans, Rex Tillerson is a blank. He's said hardly anything in public. He's not a veteran diplomat. He's the former head of ExxonMobil. What is it that gives Chinese authorities the idea that he's an internationalist or that he has a different view of the world than the president does?

GREEN: Well a couple of things, one is his tenure at ExxonMobil demonstrated to every major country in Asia that he understands free trade, global trade, forward presence of our military and our diplomats. The other is that his colleague, Secretary of Defense Mattis, traveled to the region in March and said all the things that President Trump had not said, that Japan is a good ally, that we will defend our allies. So they're hoping that he will lean a little forward in a way he hasn't yet and that the secretary of state will reaffirm some longstanding commitments that people are waiting to hear.

INSKEEP: Are Chinese officials prepared to deal, in a substantive way, with the new secretary of state? Or will they go around him and just go straight to the White House?

GREEN: Oh, the Chinese already are. They're already developing a relationship with Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, while dealing with Secretary Tillerson. But they will want him to be one of the major power centers. That's for sure.

INSKEEP: Now, when we hear the fear expressed that the United States will in some way withdraw from East Asia, not be as supportive of U.S. allies, does China like that?

GREEN: You know, it's interesting. The nationalist press that are reflecting the propaganda department's line but are really pushing the envelope, they're chortling a bit about the difficulties in American politics, about the prospect that we might back away from our ally...

INSKEEP: Because they think they can expand into that space.

GREEN: ...Because they see room for expanding. But, you know, for Xi Jinping and the Chinese leadership, this is a very sensitive year. The 19th Party Congress will convene this fall and decide the new lineup of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the leading group. And the...

INSKEEP: Choosing the next generation of leaders.

GREEN: Basically the next generation of leaders and almost certainly reconsolidate - or further consolidating Xi Jinping's leadership. So they don't want any external trouble. And Xi is more aggressive, assertive, nationalistic. But he's basically following the line of the last Chinese leader, who's going to - Deng Xiaoping, which is, don't overtly challenge the Americans. It will bring on more trouble than you can handle. So they're divided. But I think the prevailing view is, let's try to make this work. And Rex Tillerson's trip is really their first chance to show that that's possible.

INSKEEP: I want people to know that you were traveling in East Asia because you've got a book called "By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy And American Power In The Asia Pacific Since 1783." So you're doing book talks. And I know when any American travels abroad, it's almost as if they're the ambassador from the United States. People have all sorts of questions and opinions. What kinds of questions were people asking you as you traveled around?

GREEN: Well, every audience, whether it was Tokyo, Hong Kong or Beijing, wants to know the house of cards, the inside. I'm from Washington. Who's up? Who's down? But what I tried to tell them was, look also at our history. Look at the structure of American interests in Asia. Over half of Americans say it's the most important and dynamic region to us. Look at the structure in East Asia with the North Korean threat, with China's rise. And you'll realize that while there's a lot of debate in the administration right now, and there will be some uncertainty, the basic parameters of American engagement are not going to change that much, in all likelihood.

Presidents matter. They matter a lot. Presidents can articulate strategy. They can have bad strategies. But there's an awful lot of structure, an awful lot of demands and an awful lot of interests that will make it hard for any president to check out of the region. And that's why I think you steadily see more and more reconfirmation of more traditional American policies.

INSKEEP: You think that the weight of history is going to prevail here, even with this new president who doesn't seem that interested in history and explicitly wants to shake up everything.

GREEN: So we've had presidents who were uninterested, who disengaged and created danger. We've had other presidents who were fascinated and intrigued and ambitious about Asia who pushed our interests and our leadership well beyond what our actual power was. So presidents matter. But the second world war and Korea have all created a very deep understanding, I think, in the Congress and the American people, that we have to be forward-engaged. And every governor of every state in the union wants more trade with Asia, more investment from Asia. That hasn't changed. So there will be uncertainty. There will be disruptions. But there will also be some pretty strong interest groups in the U.S. that have a stake in us being engaged and leading in Asia.

INSKEEP: Michael Green, thanks for coming by.

GREEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Georgetown University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.