Tensions Tighten Ahead of Trump’s First Visit to China

President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on October 16, 2017. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Tensions between China and the United States have ignited after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated “provocative actions in the South China Sea directly challenge the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for” at a forum on U.S.-India relations on Wednesday. Tillerson was referring to a mass of land in the South China Sea that’s been historically disputed as to which nation is the lawful owner, going so far as comparing China’s acquisition of islands in the region for military use as “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea” during his confirmation hearing in January. China has claimed more than 3,000 acres of land across the Spratly Islands, turning their reefs and sandbars into man-made islands to host airfields, weapon manufacturing sites, and ports. “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also not going to be allowed,” Tillerson stated on the issue.

The Chinese media did not respond lightly to his remarks, writing, “Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish” in The Global Times, a tabloid sanctioned by the communist state.

In response to Tillerson’s accusation on Wednesday that China is abusing its global power for economic gain, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang urged the United States to “abandon its prejudices” in a statement on Thursday, assuring that “China firmly upholds the international order with the United Nations at its core” and that the nation is “dedicated to developing long-term healthy and stable relations with the United States.” Since then, Tillerson has taken a softer approach to alleviating tension with China, confirming that the United States also wished to “expand cooperative areas and achieve win-win results.”

The relationship between Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping had reportedly reached a high during Jinping’s visit to Mar-a-Lago in April but will face uncertainty as both governments have yet to reach a consensus over China’s acquisition of land in the South China Sea. In three weeks, Trump will make his first visit to China during his presidency, a trip intensified not only by China’s recent occupation of disputed land but also Trump’s disparaging remarks over China’s handling of North Korea’s escalating threats of nuclear warfare.

Trump left their previous meeting in April on the note that the Chinese president was a “terrific person” with whom he had a “very good relationship.” That relationship tightened as the situation with North Korea’s nuclear testing grew more severe. In a series of tweets on September 3rd following North Korea’s confirmation that the country had begun testing a hydrogen bomb, Trump wrote, “North Korea is a rogue nation which has become a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success.”

This was not the last time Trump would criticize China for its lack of intervention with North Korea. As the United States continues to pressure Beijing to increase sanctions and cut ties with Pyongyang, the outcome of Trump and Jinping’s impending meeting becomes more precarious.

Francesca Friday is New York City-based National Politics contributor for Observer. Follow her on Twitter: @friday_tweets_

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Tensions Tighten Ahead of Trump’s First Visit to China