U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson exits his plane. (Photo: State Dept. Flickr)
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson exits his plane. (Photo: State Dept. Flickr)

The thorny issue of trade will be a key topic that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will discuss with Chinese leaders when he visits Beijing this Saturday and Sunday. Given President Donald Trump’s blunt criticisms of Beijing’s trade practices and other policies, bridging the divide will not be easy.

Tillerson’s first official visit to Asia, capped off with a stop in Beijing, is seen as an important step in mapping out the road ahead for the world’s two biggest economies.
He will be talking with Chinese officials about how the two can chart a way forward on trade and other key issues.

"We want to be able to pursue a constructive discussion with China that enables us to get at sort of problem areas and make progress on issues," Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton told reporters.

WATCH: Bill Ide's video report 

Tough trade talk


Trump complained frequently about China’s trade practices on the campaign trail, threatening to impose tough import tariffs on Chinese goods and promising to label the country a currency manipulator.
None of that has happened yet and since Trump and China’s Xi Jinping spoke last month on the phone, relations appear to be moving in a positive direction.
Despite what Chinese officials say is a sense of optimism about relations and renewed pledges for more open access for foreign companies here, concerns about a possible trade war and frictions persist in China.

"We do not want to see any trade war breaking out between the two countries,"  Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said. " That would not make our trade fairer. Our hope on the Chinese side is that no matter what bumps this relationship hits, we hope it will continue to move forward in a positive direction.”

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speaks during a press c
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speaks during a press conference held at the conclusion of the annual meeting of China's National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 15, 2017.

Beijing residents realistic and optimistic

On the streets of Beijing, some expressed concerns about the trajectory of ties, but also faith that the two could find ways to manage frictions.
“As long as both sides can find a peaceful way to address their interests, they should be able to move forward," one Beijing resident told VOA.

“Each side has their own political agenda, despite what some may say in the U.S. There will be frictions, but I don’t think a trade war is likely," opined another.
“There of course will be frictions over their views on trade and finance, but that’s normal," a third Beijing resident said.

It is normal given the size and huge interests of both economies, analysts say, but forwarding Trump’s America first agenda while keeping relations with China on track brings new uncertainties as well.