A US military aide carries the "nuclear football." Photo: AFP / Olivier Douliery / Pool via CNP

Relations between Washington and Beijing have taken another bizarre twist. On Monday, it was revealed that a “skirmish” broke out over the aptly-named “nuclear football” briefcase, which contains the United States’ launch codes, during President Donald Trump’s trip to China last year to meet President Xi Jinping.

The incident occurred on Nov. 9 when Trump was visiting Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, according to Axios, with the US news website quoting five sources.

In a surreal moment, John Kelly, the US Chief of Staff, and a Secret Service agent were involved in a tussle with Chinese security officials after the military aide carrying the “football” was blocked from entering the Great Hall.

Kelly, in an adjoining room, was told what was happening and the former US Marine Corps general rushed over and informed Trump’s entourage to keep on walking.

A Chinese security official then grabbed Kelly before a US Secret Service agent moved in. The Chinese security official was then tackled to the ground.

“The whole scuffle was over in a flash, and the US officials told about the incident were asked to keep quiet about it,” Axios, which was set up in 2016 by the Politico co-founder Jim VandeHei and the former White House correspondent Mike Allen, reported.

At no point did the Chinese commandeer the nuclear “football” or even touch the briefcase, the website added.

The process for launching a nuclear strike is complex. But the briefcase is always with the US president and is carried by a rotating group of military officers. If a nuclear strike was ordered, Trump would identify himself to officials at the Pentagon with a unique set of codes.

“Trump’s team followed the normal security procedure to brief the Chinese before their visit to Beijing, according to a person familiar with the trip,” Axios stated. “But somebody at the Chinese end either didn’t get the memo or decided to mess with the Americans anyway.”

These latest revelations surfaced in the wake of deteriorating trade relations between the US and China.

Last week, the US Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, issued the findings of an investigation into the national security impact of cheap steel and aluminum imports from the world’s second-largest economy. The reports also opened the door to what could be punitive tariffs.

“I want to keep prices down but I also want to make sure that we have a steel industry and an aluminum industry and we do need that for national defense,” Trump told a meeting with US politicians.

“If we ever have a conflict, we don’t want to be buying steel [from] a country we are fighting,” he added in what appeared to be a reference about China.

The move triggered anger in Beijing. “If the United States’ final decision affects China’s interests, we will take necessary measures to defend our rights,” Wang Hejun, a director at the country’s Commerce Ministry, said in a statement.

Earlier this year, US regulators blocked Ant Financial, which is part of the powerful Alibaba group, from acquiring money transfer company MoneyGram for US$1.2 billion. National security concerns, revolving around the question of data protection, were the main issue.

“China has urged the US to show restraint in using trade remedy tools and stop taking unilateral trade restriction measures,” Wang told the Global Times, a state-owned newspaper.

Now, it will be interesting to see if this latest spat sparks another broadside from Beijing.

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