China Wary of Tillerson Wooing Away Russia

The Trump administration will have close ties to Moscow via its secretary of state but relations with Beijing are frosty. Could Sino-Russian ties be under threat?
Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Rex Tillerson at a meeting in April 2012. (File Photo)
Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Rex Tillerson at a meeting in April 2012. (File Photo)
Within Chinese foreign policy circles, Tillerson’s nomination is seen as clear evidence of Trump’s tilt to Russia

Rex Tillerson’s controversial nomination as secretary of state has delighted Moscow where the Texan oilman has deep and longstanding ties.

Donald Trump’s choice of the ExxonMobil chief was “100% good news” for Vladimir Putin, one opposition politician claimed.

But in Beijing, already reeling from Trump’s early forays into foreign policy, the move has inspired no such celebration, instead fuelling fears that the president-elect’s courtship of the Kremlin could be part of a bold strategic bid to isolate China, the Guardian reported.

“He’s a very adventurous strategist,” Shi Yinhong, a foreign policy specialist from Renmin University, said of the incoming president who has already enraged Beijing by threatening to upend decades of the US policy towards China.

“If Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump become great friends, then China can do nothing about it, but China will be prepared for some degree of alienation between Moscow and Beijing.”

Growing Chinese angst that the Republican might take a harder line on China and seek to drive a wedge between it and Russia was on display on Wednesday in the editorial pages of the Global Times, a state-run tabloid.

The newspaper played down what it said were public “concerns” that warmer ties between Trump and Putin might harm the Sino-Russian relationship but admitted such thinking was “not ridiculous”.

“[China and Russia] will keep going forward side by side,” the newspaper insisted.

John Delury, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University, said that within Chinese foreign policy circles Tillerson’s nomination was seen as clear evidence of Trump’s “tilt to Russia”.

The oil industry veteran has made at least five trips to China since 2008, most recently in July when he met with Wang Yilin, a longtime Communist party member who is the chairman of state-run energy giant China National Petroleum Corp.

But Tillerson, who has opposed the US sanctions against Moscow, enjoys far deeper connections to Russia.

The ExxonMobil chief is reportedly a personal friend of Igor Sechin, a Russian official considered the country’s second-most powerful man after Putin, and was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship in 2013 after striking a drilling deal with state-run oil giant Rosneft.

Delury said “Chinese are very much aware of a double standard in how Trump seems to embrace Putin and at best keep Xi Jinping at arms length, if not seem to want a combative relationship”.

China has offered a tepid official response to Tillerson’s nomination.

“We have noted the relevant reports,” foreign ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang, told reporters, adding that Beijing was “willing to work with the secretary of state, whoever it is, to move China-US relations forward”.

However, some observers say China’s leaders will be alarmed at the possibility that Trump is seeking to play Richard Nixon’s “China card” in reverse by wooing Moscow while treating Beijing mean.

In 1972, in an audacious bid to isolate the Soviets, Nixon and Henry Kissinger travelled to China to seal a historic rapprochement with Mao Zedong.

Now, some believe Trump may be hoping to do the exact opposite: cut an increasingly assertive China down to size by luring Moscow away from its embrace.

Political and economic ties between Beijing and Moscow have blossomed since Xi became president in 2013 with the Chinese leader painting the two countries as “friends forever”.

Delury said he would not be surprised if President Trump chose to visit Russia before flying in to Beijing.

“He’s looking for leverage with the Chinese and he’s trying to needle them. He’s already getting under their skin with Taiwan and I suppose he could try a Moscow trip, too,” he said.

It was even possible Trump might use such a trip to further undermine Beijing by holding talks with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un on the sidelines of a meeting in the Russian capital.

But the American scholar said he was unconvinced Trump would manage to break the bond between Russia and China by pursuing an “upside-down Nixon strategy”.

“Putin is going to go along for the ride a little bit but Putin doesn’t want a breakdown in relations with China,” he said.

“The reason it all worked in the 70s was the Sino-Soviet split. Nixon could do what he did because China and the Soviets were enemies. They were ready to go to war. That isn’t the situation at all today.”


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