Tillerson Speaks Chinese: The United States and Beijing’s Diplomatic Language

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.

© Foreign Affairs

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Feng Zhang is a Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University’s Department of International Relations, Deputy Director (Higher Degree by Research) of the ANU’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, and a member of the executive committee of the Australian Centre on China in the World based at the ANU. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy, Asia-Pacific security, and international relations theory. He is also Adjunct Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China.

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