BEIJING — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Xi Jinping of China cast aside their differences on Sunday with a public display of cooperation, sidestepping areas of disagreement even as North Korea made another defiant statement by showing off a new missile engine.
In the highest-level face-to-face meeting between the United States and China since President Donald Trump took office, the two sides made no mention of other contentious issues, including possible punitive trade measures against China and Washington’s unhappiness with Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Greeting the new secretary of state in an ornate room in the Great Hall of the People, Mr. Xi thanked Mr. Tillerson — who was on the final day of a swing through Asia — for a smooth transition to the Trump administration and expressed his appreciation for the sentiment that “the China-U.S. relationship can only be defined by cooperation and friendship.”
At least in public, Mr. Tillerson adopted a far different tone than that of his boss, who said in a Twitter post on Friday that China had “done little to help” on North Korea. Instead, Mr. Tillerson said the United States looked forward to stronger ties with China.
China has been North Korea’s biggest backer, but relations between the two countries have been strained as the North continues to pursue the development of nuclear weapons. Hours before the meeting between Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Xi — who days before signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on investment cooperation valued at $65 billion — North Korea stuck its nose under the tent, announcing that it had tested a new high-thrust missile engine that analysts said could be used in an intercontinental missile.
The test, apparently timed for Mr. Tillerson’s visit to Beijing, was another sign that North Korea was expanding its missile capabilities, with the state news media reporting that the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, had presided over an event of “historic significance.”
By testing the engine Saturday, Mr. Kim appeared to be giving China an additional headache by goading Mr. Tillerson, who said in South Korea on Friday that if the North elevated its threat, a pre-emptive strike by the U.S. would be on the table.
The missile engine created the “perfect test” of the red line drawn by Mr. Tillerson in Seoul, said Evans J. R. Revere, a former principal deputy assistant secretary of state specializing in North Korea.
Mr. Kim said in January that North Korea was in the final stages of preparing to test an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM: a weapon that could reach the United States. “Based on what just happened at the test site, he doesn’t seem to have been kidding,” Mr. Revere said.
During his 24-hour stay in Beijing, Mr. Tillerson, who also visited Japan during his first trip to Asia as secretary of state, took the unusual step of repeating rosy Chinese language on the state of relations between the U.S. and China.
The relationship is guided by “nonconflict, nonconfrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation,” Mr. Tillerson said at a news conference with Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The Chinese state news media quoted Mr. Tillerson’s echo of the Chinese phrasing, noting it approvingly. Indeed, some critics say Mr. Tillerson bent too far in that moment, handing Beijing what Chinese media reports are calling a “diplomatic victory.”
But behind the scenes, diplomats and analysts said there was little doubt that Mr. Tillerson had pressed China to enforce sanctions against North Korea and raised the possibility that the United States would bolster its missile defense in Asia if China did not rein in Mr. Kim.
The Associated Press and The Washington Post contributed.