For more than a year, Chinese leader Xi Jinping could count on one thing even as his government clashed with the United States over trade and other tiffs: US President Donald Trump calling him “friend”.
But after a turbulent week of sanctions, tariffs, cancelled meetings and accusations of election meddling, Trump suggested the honeymoon was over as US-China relations sink to their lowest point in years.
“If (Trump) thinks that he and Xi are no longer friends, then there could be a whole different level of deterioration in the US-China relationship far beyond trade,” Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism China Newsletter, told AFP.
Trump has called Xi a “good friend” since their first meeting at his Florida resort in April 2017. Xi gave Trump a lavish welcome in Beijing in November, but has never been as verbally effusive about their relationship.
After accusing China of trying to interfere in the upcoming US midterm election, Trump said Wednesday that Xi “may not be a friend of mine anymore”, though “he probably respects me”.
“Trump and Xi were never friends,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Trump has deliberately insulated his relationship with Xi from the friction in the bilateral relationship in the belief that he could use it to cut deals if there are opportunities to do so,” Glaser said.
There is at least one issue where Trump’s rapport with Xi may have had an impact.
Chen Daoyin, a Shanghai-based political expert, said Trump’s decision to rescue Chinese telecoms giant ZTE from collapse following US sanctions “can be considered as the fruit of their personal friendship”.
But their relationship is “only superficial” because they “have different values”.
Chen noted that Xi did not attend UN meetings this week while Trump is skipping an Asia-Pacific summit in November.
“We can see that they are avoiding each other,” Chen said.
Asked whether Xi is no longer friends with Trump, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said maintaining “sound and healthy” US-China relations are in the “long-term interest” of both countries.
Tensions between the world’s two largest economies have flared up on a nearly daily basis during the last week.
The US sanctioned a Chinese military organisation last week for buying Russian weapons, prompting Beijing to cut short a Chinese admiral’s US visit and summon the US ambassador.
On Friday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced “awful abuses” committed against mostly Muslim ethnic Uighurs held in internment camps in China’s northwest Xinjiang region.
After US tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods were launched on Monday, Beijing said trade talks were impossible while Washington holds a “knife to someone’s throat”.
Also this week, US B-52 bombers flew over the disputed South China Sea and East China Sea and Beijing slammed US plans to sell military parts to self-governing Taiwan.
At the UN, Trump accused China on Wednesday of using a variety of tactics to damage his chances at the vital midterm polls in November.
One example he provided was an insert sponsored by the state-run China Daily in The Des Moines Register — a newspaper in Iowa, a key state in US elections.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi rejected the “unwarranted accusations”.
But it was not the only time Chinese media have reached out to the American public.
In August, English-language state broadcaster CGTN ran an animation with a not-so-subtle message to California voters, noting that Chinese tariffs have hit almond farmers in areas represented by Republicans.
Glaser said China has aimed tariffs to influence Trump supporters and media to win sympathy from American voters, but Chinese tactics are “overt attempts at exerting influence rather than covert interference”.
Bishop said the trade war has prompted China to look for quick ways to reduce its dependency on a range of US goods and services.
Xi appears to have seized on his government’s limited options, with China Daily running a story on Thursday about his visit to a farm where he stressed the importance of “self-reliance” in food security and manufacturing in the face of trade protectionism.
“The Chinese would still prefer some sort of deal that is basically a delaying action so that it mitigates some of the current intensifying tensions,” Bishop said.
But, he added, “whatever compromises or whatever short-term deals are reached, they’re going to be a band-aid on a much bigger problem that is only going to get worse over time”.