US President Donald Trump admitted his friendship with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping could be over on Wednesday as he accused Beijing of undermining his prospects in upcoming elections.
With tensions growing sharply between the two sides on a range of issues, Trump said China wanted him to suffer an electoral setback as payback for his hard line over trade.
After accusing the government in Beijing of using a variety of tactics to damage his chances at the vital midterm polls in November, he said that relations with Xi might have taken a permanent turn for the worse.
Trump has spoken many times since coming to office of his friendship with Xi, praising the Chinese leader for his role in helping bring pressure to bear on North Korea over its nuclear program.
But asked at a press conference in New York how Xi could remain his friend given the hike in tensions, Trump indicated that he preferred to be respected than liked.
“He may not be a friend of mine anymore but I think he probably respects me,” said the president, who said the US economy was easily weathering the impact of the trade dispute.
Washington this week enacted new tariffs against China covering another $200 billion of its imports, shrugging off threats of counter measures from Beijing.
China has vowed to retaliate with duties on $60 billion in US goods, but since the country only imports a total of $130 billion, its ability to hit back with matching tariffs is limited.
The accusation of electoral interference first came during a meeting of the UN Security Council that Trump chaired himself earlier in the day.
“Regrettably we found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election coming up in November against my administration,” Trump told the chamber.
“They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade,” he added.
Trump later said there was clear evidence to back up his claim.
“We have evidence. It will come out. Yeah, I can’t tell you now, but it came – it didn’t come out of nowhere, that I can tell you,” he told a press conference.
In a briefing with reporters in Washington, a senior White House official said that China was deploying economic, military and informational tools to spread influence and to undermine the US government.
“The activities have reached an unacceptable level,” the official said.
The official said the policy of “actively interfering in our political system includes hurting farmers in districts and states that voted for the president”.
The official was referring to China’s imposition of tariffs on soybeans – a hugely important trade in the electorally crucial state of Iowa – as retaliation for Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi rejected what he termed “unwarranted accusations.”
“China has all along followed the principle of non-interference,” Wang said in the same session that was chaired by the US president.
“We did not and will not interfere in any country’s domestic affairs. We refuse to accept any unwarranted accusations against China.”
But Trump followed up his accusations with a series of tweets accusing China’s government of paying for newspaper space in the US state of Iowa to push its message.
These “propaganda ads” are being placed “because we are beating them on Trade, opening markets”, he tweeted.
The United States also irked China earlier this week by going ahead with plans to sell a batch of military parts to the self-governing island of Taiwan.
Beijing sees Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting unification, and is deeply suspicious of the island’s relations with the United States.
A special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, is investigating allegations that members of Trump’s inner circle colluded with Russia to secure his victory in the 2016 presidential election after US security agencies determined that Moscow had sought to influence the outcome.