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China joins U.S.' cooperation push

Tillerson: Trump looks forward to visit

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Photographs by AP/LINTAO ZHANG

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) greets China’s President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People on Sunday in Beijing.

BEIJING -- The United States is looking forward to the first meeting between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday, on the final day of a swing through Asia dominated by concerns over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

In talks with Xi in Beijing, Tillerson said Trump places a "very high value" on communications with the Chinese president.

Trump looks forward to "the opportunity of a visit in the future," Tillerson said, in an apparent reference to unconfirmed reports of plans for the two leaders to meet next month at Trump's Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.

While few details of his talks have been released, Tillerson appeared to strike a cordial tone during his meetings in Beijing. At an event with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Tillerson twice promised a relationship of "nonconflict, nonconfrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation." Chinese state media quoted Tillerson's remarks and noted that they echoed Chinese phrasing.

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Xi told Tillerson that China considered his meetings Saturday with Wang and top diplomat Yang Jiechi to have been productive and constructive.

"Both [Trump] and I believe that we need to make joint efforts to advance China-U.S. cooperation, and we believe that we can make sure the relationship will move ahead in a constructive fashion in the new era," Xi said.

While Tillerson has interacted with senior diplomats before, the meetings were a chance for China to take the measure of a man who was one of the most prominent oil executives in the U.S. until a few months ago.

The new secretary of state is "still rather obscure" to Chinese diplomats, said Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies run by China's Foreign Ministry and an envoy to Washington between 2007 and 2011. "We want to know what his take is on some major issues. We hope to establish a smooth senior level diplomatic channel from the very beginning."

Significant issues remain, particularly on trade. Trump has repeatedly said Chinese trade practices are unfair, and the countries continue to spar over China's claim over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea also claimed by Japan, a U.S. treaty ally.

But Tillerson emphasized areas where the countries could work together instead of offering any critiques. He suggested a visit from Xi could help China and the U.S. set out boundaries on where they're willing to compromise and where they will stand firm on competing interests.

"Tillerson is testing the bottom line of China," Ruan said. "The two leaders have to take a step back to rethink their strategies and reach a consensus."

William Cohen, who served as secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, said Tillerson's visit to China was important for both nations.

"The symbolism here is going to be as important as the substance, because the substance will come later," he said on the sidelines of a conference in Beijing.

North Korea

Tillerson said the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear program is more urgent than other U.S.-China issues.

In China, Tillerson said the countries agreed "things have reached a rather dangerous level" on the Korean peninsula.

"We will work together to see if we cannot bring the government in Pyongyang to a place where they want to make a different course, make a course correction, and move away from the development of nuclear weapons," Tillerson said after meeting with Wang.

Wang added that China and the U.S. both hope to restart talks with North Korea "and do not give up hope for peace."

"We can either let the situation aggravate and lead to conflict or go back to the right track of negotiations," Wang said.

Tillerson returned to the theme of negotiations and discussions when he met Xi on Sunday.

"President Trump places a very high value on the communications that have already occurred between yourself and President Trump, most particularly the very lengthy telephone conversation," Tillerson told Xi, adding that the February call improved both sides' views of each other and their relationship.

"We know that through further dialogue we will achieve a greater understanding that will lead to a strengthened, strengthening of the ties between China and the United States, and set the tone for our future relationship of cooperation," Tillerson said.

Xi returned the praise, saying Tillerson had made efforts to achieve "a smooth transition in our relationship under the new era."

"I also appreciate your comment that the China-U.S. relationship can only be defined by cooperation and friendship," Xi told Tillerson.

Neither side mentioned China's objections to the installation of a missile defense system in South Korea. Tillerson has said the U.S. system was of little danger to China, which argues that the system erodes its nuclear deterrent.

"Tillerson will repeat many times this is no threat to China, but Xi won't believe it," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University.

Information for this article was contributed by Christopher Bodeen of The Associated Press; by Nick Wadhams, Ting Shi and Keith Zhai of Bloomberg News; and by Jane Perlez of The New York Times.

A Section on 03/20/2017

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