BEIJING — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo got an earful from senior Chinese officials during a five-hour visit to Beijing on Monday, effectively becoming the whipping boy in the increasingly acrimonious relationship between the two governments.
Pompeo is the most senior official to meet with his Chinese counterparts since President Trump accused Beijing of interfering in November’s midterm elections, and Vice President Pence gave a vitriolic speech charging Beijing with seeking to undermine U.S. interests across the globe.
He felt the full force of the dispute during meetings with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi, a Politburo member who has long dealt with bilateral relations.
In the first round, Wang told Pompeo that the Trump administration’s recent actions against China have “directly impacted our mutual trust and cast a shadow over our bilateral relations.”
Pompeo is on a whistle-stop tour around Asia mainly focused on North Korea’s nuclear program, but upon arrival in Beijing, the agenda swiftly pivoted to the burgeoning dispute between the world’s two biggest economies, sparked by Trump’s trade war and fueled by his allegations that the Chinese government is “interfering” in next month’s midterm elections.
“We urge the U.S. to stop such misguided activities,” Wang said, casting the sudden deterioration in the relationship in surprisingly undiplomatic terms. He cited the “escalation” of trade friction, favorable treatment of Taiwan and “criticizing China’s internal and external policies.”
“We believe that we need to keep our relationship on the right track,” a stern-faced Wang told his American counterpart.
At Pompeo’s second meeting, Yang protested the “unwarranted actions from the U.S. side” and said that China “will take all necessary measures to safeguard” itself against anything the United States might do. He did, however, strike a slightly more conciliatory tone, urging the United States to expand cooperation and “meet China halfway.”
The secretary of state responded by saying that Washington and Beijing were stuck in a “fundamental disagreement” that he hoped they could make some progress on resolving. He lamented Beijing’s recent decision not to attend the strategic dialogue between the two countries’ defense secretaries planned for the middle of this month, saying that the forum is an “important opportunity” for discussion.
It appeared that President Xi Jinping, who met Pompeo during the American’s visit in June, decided to snub him this time. There previously had been slots in the schedule for three meetings, but Pompeo had only two.
Separately, it emerged that Xi would soon make his first visit as president to North Korea. He will visit “soon,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in told a cabinet meeting Monday.
Pompeo tried to focus on North Korea’s denuclearization during his meetings Monday, an issue China and the United States generally agree on, even if they differ on how to get there.
Two of the five people on the American side of the meeting table dealt with North Korea: new special representative for North Korea Stephen E. Biegun and National Security Council adviser Allison Hooker.
Pompeo spent around 3 ½ hours with Kim in Pyongyang on Sunday, in a formal meeting and then at lunch, in talks he later described as “productive” and “another step forward” in negotiations to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.
The two sides agreed to set up “working-level” negotiating teams to finalize the date and time for a second summit between Trump and Kim, the secretary of state said before departing Seoul for Beijing.
“Most importantly both the leaders believe there is real progress that can be made, substantive progress that can be made at the next summit, and so we are going to get it at a time that works for each of the two leaders and at a place that works for both of them,” Pompeo told reporters in South Korea, the third stop on his trip.
“We really hope we can deliver some good outcomes from that when the summit takes place,” he added. “But we do think . . . that this is a place where ultimately some of these big, difficult issues have to be resolved by the nation’s most senior leaders, and hope to have those presented in a way that the two leaders can resolve them when they get together.”
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Kim had “warmly welcomed” Pompeo in Pyongyang and “spoke highly of him.”
Kim said progress is being made implementing the decisions he reached with Trump in Singapore in June, according to the KCNA, and expressed his gratitude to Trump, adding that agreement had been reached to hold a second summit “as soon as possible.”
During Pompeo’s meeting in Pyongyang, Kim also invited inspectors to visit the Punggye-ri nuclear test site to “confirm that it has been irreversibly dismantled,” the State Department said.
Pompeo said this could happen “as soon as we get it logistically worked out,” adding: “Chairman Kim said he’s ready to allow them to come in.”
The secretary of state also confirmed that inspectors would be invited to a separate missile test site at Tongchang-ri but declined to comment on which organization might be allowed into either site.
But for all the new momentum on dealing with North Korea, it was the bilateral relationship that dominated the discussions in Beijing on Monday.
Relations between Beijing and Washington have taken a sharp turn for the worse in the past month, as the tit-for-tat trade war has seen both sides slapping tariffs on a broad range of each others’ products, and both sides vowing to stand their ground.
The Global Times, a state-run newspaper that often reflects the thinking of the Communist Party, linked the U.S. actions to a broader push to contain China and stem its rise.
“United States, please respect the development rights of China’s vast society,” the paper said in an editorial published after Pompeo’s meetings. “Preventing 1.4 billion people from becoming prosperous and rich is morally despicable, and cannot work in reality.”
That trade war has now overflowed into other areas.
The supposedly autonomous Chinese territory of Hong Kong last month declined a scheduled port visit by a U.S. Navy ship, and a Chinese admiral canceled a planned visit to the United States. Just last week, China pulled out of the planned top-level defense meeting.
Meanwhile, Trump has accused Beijing of “interfering” in the upcoming midterms by running a four-page editorial-style supplement in the Des Moines Register, trying to tap into Iowa farmers’ frustration over the tariffs.
China hit back angrily, implying that it is the United States that has a track record of interfering in other countries’ business.
Then in a sharply critical speech last week, Vice President Pence issued a broad indictment of the methods behind China’s rise to becoming a major economic power, asserting that Beijing has sought to undermine U.S. interests across the globe.
Trump “will not back down” from the challenge, Pence said, adding that China “wants a different American president” and that the nation “is interfering in America’s democracy” ahead of the midterm elections, he said.
The speech further inflamed tensions.
“For Chinese people, kindness and hatred are clearly distinguished,” Zhu Feng, dean of the School of International Relations at Nanjing University, said in a piece in the Guangming Daily newspaper Monday, under the headline “China’s modernization is not a gift from the United States.”
“We will not forget America’s help and support to China in modern and contemporary history, but Mr. Pence cannot be ‘superior’ for having helped China previously,” Zhu said. “We also need to clarify facts about the history of China-U.S. relations.”
Denyer reported from Tokyo. Yang Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.