Previewing the Visit of President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China

Special Briefing
Susan Thornton, Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Via Teleconference
April 5, 2017

MR STROH: Thank you, and good morning. Thanks to everyone who is participating in the call. This will be an on-the-record conference call. Our speaker today is Susan Thornton, the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs here at the State Department, and she will be offering a preview of the visit of President Xi of the People’s Republic of China to the United States. As a reminder, this call is on the record and will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call.

And with that, I’ll turn it over to Acting Assistant Secretary Thornton.

MS THORNTON: Good morning, everyone, great to be here with you today, Wednesday. Of course, we are in the throes of preparation for the upcoming summit with the Chinese leadership. President Trump and the First Lady will, of course, host Chinese President Xi Jinping and First Lady Madam Peng Liyuan at Mar-a-Lago in Florida tomorrow and Friday. This is, of course, a very momentous meeting. It’s a great opportunity and it’s also a chance to have a discussion with the Chinese about areas where we have some concerns and want to make some progress.

Of course, the venue of the visit is very important, and the two presidents want to get to know one another. This will be their first meeting. They want to build up the type of personal rapport and working relationship that we’ll be able to count on in times of opportunity, but also in times of crisis. And we’ll hope that we don’t have any crises, but we need to have that relationship in that event. The conversations, of course, between the presidents and among our cabinet officials will be candid and constructive and businesslike. And we hope to identify some priorities to focus on going forward and discuss the full range of important issues that come up in our bilateral relationship, but also global challenges around the world.

I think you know that the visit’s going to be building on a number of interactions that have already taken place. Of course, Secretary Tillerson traveled to the region and met with his counterparts and with President Xi in Beijing very recently, worked on setting up the trip. And I think we’ll be looking forward to this meeting coming up in Florida. We’re looking to identify areas where we can come up with concrete outcomes and benefits for the American people. We’re going to address some common challenges, and I’m sure you’re going to be asking me about some of those. And we’re also going to be identifying our – the priority that we place on continuing to uphold the rules-based international system and to abide by international and universal norms and values.

We have a relationship with the Chinese that is based on cooperation and candor, and I’m sure that the meetings will reflect that spirit. Of course, this is the first time that the presidents will meet, but it won’t be the last. I think that it’s been a tradition in U.S.-China relations that the high-level engagements are a very important part of our communication between our two countries, and I think we will continue to have high-level engagements in the months and years ahead. So we look forward to kicking that all off in the next couple of days in Florida.

And with that, I’ll be happy to take a few questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And ladies and gentlemen, once again, you may press * and then 1 for any questions or comments. We will go to the line of Nick Wadhams of Bloomberg. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks very much. I just had a couple quick questions. One, Susan, will you be going down to Mar-a-Lago for this visit? Then also, on North Korea, what is the best-case scenario in terms of an outcome here? Are you expecting that you could see some sort of key deliverable on an agreement on sanctions? I mean, we had that interesting, to say the least, comment from the Secretary last night saying – essentially making it sound like the time for talk was over and it was time for action. So what are you expecting in terms of North Korea out of this?

And then finally, could you just talk a little bit about Secretary Tillerson’s decision in Beijing to use the terminology that China uses for its sort of new model of great power relations, that idea of mutual cooperation, mutual trust, win-win cooperation – win-win outcomes? Why did he use that exact language that the Chinese have basically been pushing for the U.S. to use for so long? Thank you.

MS THORNTON: Okay, great, thank you. I think let me take the sort of the easiest first, which is – the first question was pretty easy: Am I going? And the answer is yes, I am going.

So on the issue of North Korea, I think, of course, this is an issue that is going to be discussed at this meeting, and it’s an issue that I think we feel has become very urgent. It’s a urgent and global threat, and we see the North Korean weapons programs as increasingly destabilizing, both for Northeast Asia and for the globe. So of course, this is an issue that we’re going to be discussing. I don’t know if we’ll be to be talking about how China can contribute to a resolution of this problem. And I think you saw from the Secretary’s statement last night – and I think this was your words – the time for talk is over. He conveyed that sentiment as well on the trip that we were on recently in Korea and Japan, and I think we will be looking for help from China to increase the pressure. I don’t – I can’t say specifically what the discussion will be and where we’ll come out, but this is going to be a high-priority issue, coming up with a way to address this very urgent threat.

I think in addition to the conversation with the Chinese that we’re going to be having this week is in one important aspect of addressing this problem, I think you heard on Monday UN Ambassador Nikki Haley announced that the Secretary would be traveling up to New York also this month to convene a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss this issue. And we are going to be talking, not only to the Chinese, but to all of our partners in the international community about this very pressing problem.

The third part of your question, on the Secretary of State’s comments in Beijing, look, I think people have focused a little bit too much on this specific use of this language. What the Secretary did in Beijing in all of the meetings and in the press event – and if you read the transcript – what he was referring to was the – going back in history and the U.S.-China relationship, how we have managed a relationship that’s very complicated and at times has been very difficult. And he was referring to the last 40 years of our relationship, how we’ve managed that effectively. And he also mentioned that now it’s time for the two leaders to meet and set a new course for the future 40 to 50 years of U.S.-China relations.

So I mean, in my mind, this reference was to acknowledge what’s been done in the past, but now we’re going to chart a course for the future, and that’s what’s going to be happening in the next couple of days.

MR STROH: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go to the line of Michelle Kosinski with CNN. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Along the same lines – I mean, you partially answered it, but I was looking for a little more clarification on what message the Secretary was wanting to send with his statement last night. Is this sort of a threatening tone to North Korea, that more is going to happen, and it’s not going to be a matter of words anymore? I’d like to hear that in your description.

And also, we heard the President say a couple of times in an interview – sorry, we’re just fixing our audio here – the President saying that if China isn’t going to help us solve this issue of North Korea, we will, indicating that we could do it alone. So does the U.S. believe that China is necessary in this equation, or is it not necessary? Thank you.

MS THORNTON: Yeah. So I think I did actually speak to these issues, but I will try to be a little bit more clear if it wasn’t clear before. I think on the issue of North Korea – and I know that there was a briefing at the White House yesterday where these issues also came up in quite some detail. So I think you’ve heard a lot of statements, and I think what all of the statements are reflecting is the obvious sort of sense that these missile launches that have happened – we’ve had now tens of them in the last sort of 12 months – they keep being repeated over and over and over again. They’re blatantly in violation of the UN Security Council resolutions and defying the will of the international community, and nevertheless, there’s another one this week.

And so I think the statement speaks for itself. You heard yesterday people say, and you heard the Secretary also say on his trip that we’re considering all the various options in trying to address what has become an increasingly urgent and destabilizing threat. And I think we will certainly be looking to uphold UN Secretary Council resolutions. We’re going to – certainly the discussion with China – everyone has acknowledged that China’s going to have a big role to play, and that most of North Korea’s economic activity does flow across the border with China, so obviously they are going to have an important part to play in the international effort to do something about North Korea’s increasingly provocative moves.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Next, we’ll go to the line of Andrea Mitchell with NBC News. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Can you explain just what are the options for preemptive action? And how does the administration feel that China would react to what the Secretary said in Seoul about preemptive military action, and just how do they envision that working? And also, separately, what focus will the President place on human rights in the conversations in Mar-a-Lago? How important is that as a priority? And can you explain the strategy of the decisions that were taken on climate change, which go against the hard-fought Paris accords so close to this summit, how that would be received by the Chinese? Thank you.

MS THORNTON: Yeah, so I think in terms of the first question, we have a – we have a review of North Korea policy ongoing. These are, obviously, private diplomatic engagements that we’re having and we – I think the President said we’re not going to broadcast what we’re going to be doing. So I think I’d just leave it there as far as – the repeated statements have all said that all options are on the table and being looked at, and I don’t have any more for you on that.

On the question of human rights, I mean, human rights will, of course, be raised in the context of this U.S.-China summit. It can’t help but come up. It’s sort of the spirit of upholding universally acclaimed and recognized human rights is something that’s embodied in all of us and it is who we are. And I think there’s no question that the sentiments about needing to observe and protect human rights and religious freedom are definitely going to be part of the summit.

On climate change, I am not sure I understood your question relevant to the summit, but I don’t think that the Chinese will probably be raising that in detail. So that would be my thoughts on that. I don’t think it will come up in detail. And I think the other thing that’s been said about our climate change policy as far as the diplomacy goes, it requires international efforts, and I think we’ll be – you’ll be hearing more about us on that front. But I don’t think that it’s going to be a major part of the discussion in Florida.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the line of Felicia Schwartz with Wall Street Journal. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much for doing the call. Will the President or Secretary Tillerson ask China to stop harassing South Korea about the THAAD system? And do you expect that the President or the Secretary will use language similar to the language that the Secretary used in China? Thanks.

MS THORNTON: Yes. So I know that the Secretary did speak publicly about this issue of the perceived retaliation that’s been meted out against South Korean companies in response to the THAAD deployment, and I think he indicated that any retaliation for a country trying to just deploy a defensive system in response to what is an obvious and growing threat would be troubling. But he made those comments publicly already on the trip. I don’t know if it’s going to come up again in Florida, but I think we’ve made our position on this pretty clear and have also raised that position with the Chinese so they are aware.

So I don’t know if it’s going to come up again in detail in Florida, but it could, and if it does, I think we would repeat our position that we find it to be troubling and disappointing to see that kind of retaliation taking place.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the line of David Clark with AFP. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, good morning. Thanks for doing this and thanks for doing it on the record. In the spirit of more action, less talk, will the Secretary when he goes to the Security Council to meet his foreign minister colleagues be bringing with him any resolution or anything he specifically wants to be approved at that meeting? And can you tell us whether the “win-win” language he used in Beijing was in his prepared talking points or was that something that he adlibbed after speaking to the Chinese? Thank you.

MS THORNTON: So on the meeting in New York – you mentioned that the Secretary’s going up to the UN later this month to convene this ministerial meeting – I think that we will be putting out more information on that and exactly what the structure of that meeting’s going to be and what you can expect from that in time. We just announced it on Monday, so we’re working on the finer points of the meeting and we will certainly be letting you know when we have something to announce on that.

So on the question of the Secretary’s discussions in Beijing, this is certainly not something that he had after talking to the Chinese. This is something that he had in his mind in describing the sort of history of the relationship and the need to move to a new kind of era and a new goal and sort of framework for the relationship going forward on – over the coming decade. So I don’t think it was anything that was inspired by anything he heard on the – at the moment in Beijing.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the line of Matthew Pennington with the Associated Press. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, good morning, and thanks for doing the – this call. I want to ask, will President Trump discuss the “one China” policy with Xi Jinping? And I mean, does President Trump consider this issue to be settled now or is it still up for negotiation as he intimated earlier? And do you think his shifting position on this has hurt his credibility in the eyes of China?

MS THORNTON: So, yeah, thank you for that question. So I don’t know if this issue’s going to come up for sure in Florida, but I think that the President has made very clear in his phone conversation with China and then we’ve had the issue come up in subsequent meetings, high-level meetings with Chinese officials and have made it very clear that we have reaffirmed our longstanding “one China” policy, which is based on the three communiques, the three joint China-U.S. communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act. And we’ve also made clear that we stand by all the commitments that we have undertaken in the context of the Taiwan Relations Act. So I don’t think that there’s going to be any lack of clarity on what our “one China” policy is in the context of the meeting upcoming. And I think the President is probably not going to raise it, but I’m sure the Chinese may raise it, and if they do, that’s what I would expect him to say. I don’t think that there is any lingering, sort of, doubt or problem that’s stemming from the phone conversation that they had earlier. I mean, he has reaffirmed the longstanding policy, and I think we’ve basically moved on from there. So I don’t anticipate it being any kind of a major discussion in the context of the upcoming meeting.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the line of Lesley Wroughton with Reuters. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you. Good morning and I agree with Dave, thanks for doing this on-the-record. It’s really helpful. A couple of questions: What do you see the Secretary’s role being during these meetings? Will he have meetings on the sidelines with anyone else or is he part of the main meeting with the President?

Number two: Do you believe that China has been helpful since – I say probably since the last sanctions announcement when it was under pressure from the previous administration to do more? Do you believe now that it is being more helpful or not?

Last question, if I may, it’s on the renminbi: How much do you think that the discussion will weigh on the issue of the renminbi and the currency? The President has just – I think it was last week – accused China of manipulating the currency. Thanks.

MS THORNTON: Great, yes. Thank you for that question. So yes, of course, Secretary Tillerson will be participating in all of the meetings with the President at Mar-a-Lago. We are bringing down a very high-level delegation on our side, the Chinese are bringing a very high-level delegation on their side, and I’m sure there will be an opportunity also for some side meetings among counterparts, but the main focus, of course, is going to be on the two presidents and their meetings. And the Secretary will definitely be a major participant.

Of course, the main focus of his trip to China last month was to help set up and prepare for the summit and for the announcements that are going to come out of the summit. So I think you can see, as far as the organization goes and the various outcomes that we’re looking for out of the summit, the structuring of future engagement with China, the Secretary has played a pivotal role in getting agreement from the Chinese on all of those issues and in sort of setting the table for not only this meeting coming up in Florida, but also our future high-level engagement with China. So we’ll be looking to see how the meeting is followed up in that respect.

On the issue of the North Korea threat and if China has been more helpful, well, I think we certainly hope that they are going to be more helpful, and that’s one of the main reasons why it’s a point of discussion upcoming for the meeting between the two leaders in the next couple of days. Of course, we’ve been working with the Chinese on this issue for quite some time, and even recently in negotiating the most recent UN Security Council resolutions, working with them on that. Of course, we want to see stepped-up implementation, we want to see even better cooperation to try to bring about a solution to the North Korea threat, but we’ll certainly be talking to them about what more they can do, and we are looking to them to be doing more in the future.

The renminbi question, I think as – I think this question came up yesterday at the White House briefing and it was correctly redirected to the Treasury Department. And I think I would be not only remiss, but probably in big trouble if I tried to remand it to anybody other than the Treasury Department, so I would point you in that direction.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And our final question will come from Kylie Atwood with CBS News. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks for doing this. I just want to circle back on a question that I think has kind of been iterated a few times on this call. In regards to Secretary Tillerson's language of mutual respect and win-win cooperation, should we see that language used again from either the President or the Secretary in regard to this trip, are they going to try and own that language in a way that the Chinese have in the past? Are they going to give it some identifying factors, what it means from the U.S. standpoint? If you could just explain that, that would be great.

MS THORNTON: Yeah. So I'm not sure exactly what language the President or the Secretary are going to be using in the context of this meeting, but again, I think the focus on the specific phraseology is a little bit misplaced. We use terms in describing our relationship with the Chinese and they use their terms. They – the way their language works, they like to use these slogans. We tend not to repeat these things. But I think the substance of the relationship is what we're talking about and we're looking for it to be very positive, very constructive, and very productive. And I think what you should look for in the meeting coming up is talk about how are we going to produce results; how are we going to produce concrete outcomes; how are we going to get progress on some of these issues and show benefit to the American people. And for the Chinese side, also, I'm sure they want to show benefit to the Chinese people. So the focus on this slogan is a little bit not what we're focused on. So I think I would just leave it there. Thanks.

MR STROH: Thank you very much, and thanks to all of our participants this morning. As a reminder, this call was on the record, so we can attribute these comments to our speaker, Susan Thornton, Acting Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. And now that we've reached the conclusion of our call, the embargo on this call is now lifted. Thanks very much.