On the eve of a week-long trip to the Middle East, South Asia and Europe, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke with two US news outlets, directing tough rhetoric toward China and setting low expectations for a breakthrough in the diplomatic freeze between Qatar and its neighbors.
First, in an interview with Bloomberg News, Tillerson warned that the United States is “expecting to see some movement” from China on areas of historic disagreement between the two countries, “whether it’s North Korea, or whether it’s South China Sea, or whether it’s trade.”
The comments followed a similar verbal rapping, issued in a speech Wednesday at a Washington, DC think tank, where Tillerson took the Chinese government to task for what he deemed irresponsible and predatory behavior. They also come just three weeks before President Donald Trump is expected to visit China.
Tripling down, Tillerson told The Wall Street Journal in a 35-minute interview that China needs to change course, particularly on addressing trade imbalances and relaxing its hold on disputed territory in the South China Sea.
“We can do this one of two ways,” Tillerson said, according to the Journal. “We can do it cooperatively and collaboratively, or we can do it by taking actions and letting you react to that.”
The Trump administration is in the midst of attempting to put pressure on North Korea through Beijing – which remains North Korea’s top trading partner, despite supporting recent United Nations Security Council sanctions related to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
Following Tillerson’s remarks on Wednesday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman called on the US to “abandon its prejudices,” adding, “China firmly upholds the international order with the United Nations at its core.”
But at a briefing on Thursday afternoon, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tillerson’s comments should come as “no surprise” to China.
“We’ve had those conversations in private previously,” she said. “This is the first time we’ve really discussed them publicly.”
In his interview with Bloomberg, Tillerson also criticized a Saudi-led alliance for their unwillingness to reach a diplomatic settlement with neighboring Qatar.
“There seems to be a real unwillingness on the part of some of the parties to want to engage,” Tillerson said. “It’s up to the leadership of the quartet when they want to engage with Qatar because Qatar has been very clear – they’re ready to engage.”
“I do not have a lot of expectations for it being resolved anytime soon,” Tillerson added, despite the fact that he will be visiting both Saudi Arabia and Qatar on his upcoming trip.
Previous interventions by Tillerson and the Trump administration have so far failed to end the crisis, despite an earlier round of shuttle diplomacy undertaken by the secretary of state in July.
At the State Department briefing, Nauert acknowledged Tillerson is “certainly discouraged” over the lack of progress on the issue, for which she faulted the parties.
Tillerson sets off for Saudi Arabia and Qatar this weekend. His trip will also include stops in India, Pakistan, and Switzerland.