The honeymoon, it appears, is over. On Sunday, Beijing warned the U.S. government that sending an American naval vessel into territorial waters it claims around the Paracel Islands in the disputed South China Sea was a “serious political and military provocation,” in the latest of a slew of incidents that augur souring relations between the world’s two largest economies.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said in a statement that China sent military vessels and fighter planes to ward off the USS Stethem, warning that approaching the Paracels, which are known as the Xisha Islands in China and are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam, “violated Chinese and international law, infringed upon China’s sovereignty, disrupted peace, security and order of the relevant waters and put in jeopardy the facilities and personnel on the Chinese islands,” according to the state-run China Daily newspaper.
The condemnation is among the strongest since U.S. President Donald Trump came to office Jan. 20. Although Trump angered Chinese President Xi Jinping immediately after his election victory by openly questioning Chinese sovereignty over self-governing Taiwan, relations improved following a first meeting between the leaders in Florida in early April. Since then, Trump has frequently praised Xi on Twitter for his help reining in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program.
Over the past week, though, the U.S. has taken aim at China on numerous issues: downgrading China to its lowest Tier 3 regarding its efforts to combat human-trafficking; robustly criticizing Beijing over its treatment of jailed dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is suffering from terminal cancer; agreeing $1.4 billion of American arms sale to Taiwan; and imposing secondary sanctions on Chinese firms doing business with North Korea.
Prof. Zhou Zunnan, of China Foreign Affairs University, says Washington is using “political blackmail” to pressure China into concessions on other issues — particularly trade. “The recent criticism and actions are all unreasonable, but the U.S. always harasses China in this way,” he says. “In the forthcoming trade negotiations, Trump may raise harsher questions to put China under greater pressure.”
Trump railed against China during his combative campaign, accusing its export-driven economy of stealing American manufacturing jobs, and vowing to impose a blanket 45% tariff on imports. But his vitriol dialed down after meeting Xi at Mar-a-Lago in early April, particularly as Trump felt he had Xi’s assurance that he would pressure North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program. The Kim Jong Un regime has tested five nuclear bombs to date and is edging ever closer to developing a missile that could carry a warhead as far as the U.S. mainland.
China is responsible for 90% of North Korean trade and key to the robustness of latest U.N. sanctions. In an apparent effort to keep Xi onside, Trump had suspended all freedom of navigation exercises through the South China Sea, through which $5.3 trillion of trade passes annually and China has been reclaiming and militarizing rocks and reefs. Trump also failed to label Beijing as currency manipulator as promised at the stump. Following the leaders’ meeting in Florida, Trump told the Wall Street Journal. “We like each other. I like him a lot. … We have great chemistry.”
Still, the current chill is not without precedent: previous U.S. Presidents have also had initial optimism in bilateral relations hit the skids. After Barack Obama came to office in 2009, relations with China were generally positive. But shortly afterward came the disastrous Copenhagen climate talks that Beijing is accused of torpedoing; Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who Beijing considers a “dangerous splitist,” visiting the White House; then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s stern criticism of China for alleged hacking and internet censorship; and an arms sale to Taiwan.
As such, the recent deterioration “seems to be an oscillation within the normal ups and downs of U.S.-China relations,” says John Delury, an East Asia expert at South Korea’s Yonsei University. “It’s on its normal downward trajectory, not a nosedive.”
The notable difference is the speed of the deterioration, given the Trump administration is just over five months old, and the potential for relations to further sour. China and the U.S. still don’t see eye-to-eye over climate change, though have swapped positions entirely, and are poised to enter delicate trade negotiations.
Trump eased off the issue of trade in exchange for cooperation regarding North Korea, tweeting April 16: “Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem? We will see what happens!” But following the death of American student Otto Warmbier, who passed away soon after returning to the U.S. following 17 months imprisoned for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster at a Pyongyang hotel, Trump tweeted: “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!”
The resumption of Freedom of Navigation operations, like that which so irked China on Sunday, and other recent needles are signs that Trump no longer feels it is worthwhile to give Beijing a free pass for assistance with North Korea. “The Chinese would fully appreciate that the message is: now the rest of the agenda is up for grabs,” says Delury. “It seems that Trump wants to keep the Chinese off-balance and guessing.”
—With reporting by Yang Siqi / Beijing