Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan
Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

Washington had been holding back on a routine arms sale to Taiwan and, by some accounts, cooling activity in the South China Sea in deference to China, in exchange for help on North Korea.

But after little progress on North Korea, the Trump administration lost its patience and went ahead with the arms sale, sent a warship to sail near a disputed island in the South China Sea, downgraded China’s human trafficking rating and reopened the prospect of trade sanctions.

On Sunday, Trump reiterated to Xi Jinping during a phone call that the US was prepared to act alone on North Korea. Then, as if on cue, North Korea reportedly tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, after which Trump tweeted:

“Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”

For its part, China has responded to the Trump administration’s apparent China-policy U-turn with sharp criticism.

“China strongly urges the US side to immediately stop this kind of provocative action which seriously violates China’s sovereignty and puts at risk China’s security,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said of US activity in the South China Sea. China would take all necessary measures to defend itself, Lu added.

“The US conduct seriously damages strategic trust between the two sides and seriously damages the political atmosphere of the development of China-US military relations,” China’s defense ministry said in a social media post.

But is all this a sign of US-China relations turning sour, or is it a sign that they are exactly the same as they have been and will be for the foreseeable future? Was the supposed “honeymoon” between Trump and Xi a substantial shift in how the world’s two most powerful countries will manage their relationship?

The reality is that things hadn’t really changed during the “honeymoon,” nor have they changed now that the US has resumed its standard course of action.

“We’ve had similar dynamics under Bush, Clinton and Obama,” Obama China adviser Jeffery A Bader was quoted by the New York Times as saying. “It’s not an either-or. We operate in a nether zone with the Chinese.”