The once-budding bromance between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to have cooled considerably after Beijing failed to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and missile program.
Now, the administration is taking new steps to pressure the country, with the State Department issuing a report Tuesday that labels it among the worst human traffickers in the world.
"China was downgraded to Tier 3 action in this year's report in part because it has not taken serious steps to end its own complicity in trafficking, including forced laborers from North Korea that are located in China,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.
Tier 3 is the lowest rung in the annual Trafficking in Persons report. According to the State Department, China joins Russia, Syria and Iran in that ignominious distinction.
While it's unclear what impact the designation may have, it's just the latest sign of Trump's increasingly palpable impatience with China. The U.S. has pressed China to exert more economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea, but Beijing says its hands are tied and its influence on Pyongyang is limited -- a response not sitting well with the Trump administration.
Trump signaled a shift in tone last week with a tweet that aides said reflected genuine disappointment with China.
“While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out,” Trump posted on Twitter, suggesting China had not done enough to convince North Korea to back down.
Tuesday's downgrade also comes one day after Trump welcomed the leader of China's neighboring powerhouse India to the White House with open arms.
Trump and Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi met Monday at the White House where the two leaders exchanged an awkward hug-shake. Trump declared he was a “true friend” of India and said the relationship between the two democracies has never been better.
Trump also praised Indian airline SpiceJet’s recent order of 100 planes from Boeing and said he looked forward to exporting more resources to India.
On Tuesday, Vice President Pence gave the keynote address at the U.S.-India Business Council’s leadership summit in D.C. where he hailed the Trump-Modi meeting as “historic and productive.” He added that the president recognizes the relationship between India and the U.S. as “one of the most important strategic relationships in the 21st century.”
Axios also reported Tuesday that there have been renewed West Wing conversations about “penalties that would deter or punish foreign dumping of steel into the U.S. market.”
Though the action wouldn’t single out China, Axios said it would be “viewed as a straight shot at Bejing.”
The Trump administration launched an investigation into foreign steel in April, when the president was on friendlier terms with China. At the time he refused to say the order was directed at China, which owns half of the world’s steel capacity and in recent years has flooded the market.
“This has nothing to do with China," Trump said. "This has to do with worldwide, what’s happening.”
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also lashed out at China for militarizing islands in the South China Sea, a region that has been an increasing source of friction between the United States and China.