Tillerson Speaks Chinese

The United States and Beijing's Diplomatic Language

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, March 2017. Thomas Peter / Reuters

On March 18, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing, delivering some sparse public remarks. Tillerson characterized the U.S.–Chinese relationship as a very positive one built on “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.”

Although Tillerson’s statement seemed innocuous, American pundits immediately criticized him for “kowtowing” to China, because these three principles—mutual respect, win-win cooperation, and no conflict or confrontation—precisely match China’s proposed “new model of great power relations.” The new model, outlined by President Xi Jinping at a June 2013 summit with former U.S. President Barack Obama, conveys Beijing’s desire for U.S.–Chinese relations that would eschew the logic of zero-sum competition and build instead on a constructive spirit of peace and cooperation. Yet Tillerson’s critics argued that by borrowing the Chinese diplomatic language wholesale, he seemed too deferential and accommodating toward China. Even Michael J. Green, who interpreted the visit charitably, characterized Tillerson’s remarks as “a minor mistake” and advised the secretary to “find his own words” in the future. 

Such criticisms are common—Obama was similarly chastised in 2013 for using Chinese diplomatic language. Underpinning these accusations, however, are some deep-seated assumptions about U.S.–Chinese relations, which suggest that the U.S. foreign policy establishment is underprepared for its biggest challenge in the twenty-first century: dealing with a rising China. Reconsidering these assumptions will help remove some major stumbling blocks to better relations between Washington and Beijing.


The first among these assumptions is that the United States should avoid using China’s preferred language to describe the U.S.–Chinese relationship. Doing so, according to Green, would enable China to interpret the relationship in line with “the official narrative of the Communist Party,” which U.S. commentators condescendingly see as comprising “platitudes and propaganda.” By contrast, using the United States’ own language is implied to be the rule in managing the relationship. 

The problem is that China also

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