US guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey sailing in the South China Sea. Photo: US Navy via AFP

Another phase of the US-China trade drama began on Monday in Beijing, with vice-minister-level negotiations kicking off a week that one top Trump administration official predicted would be “determinative.”

And while mid-level officials prepare the stage for lead negotiators to meet Thursday and Friday, the US was testing China’s resolve in another arena several thousand miles away.

The US Navy on Monday sent two warships within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese-controlled landmass in the South China Sea, Reuters reported.

US ships have been persistent in carrying out so-called “freedom of navigation operations” in waters claimed by China and other countries. China contends that the exercises are a violation of its sovereignty.

In response to a question regarding whether the action might influence the trade talks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying didn’t shy away from drawing a connection.

“You are very observant to notice the series of ‘little tricks’ from the US side,” Hua told the reporter from Japan’s NHK. “In fact, you all know the US side is thinking something.”

In terms of the US-China trade-talks issue, she stressed it is in the interests of the US, China and the entire world to resolve the dispute.

Beijing has shown a willingness to compartmentalize disputes with the US since trade negotiations began last December, most notably in the case of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou’s arrest in Canada at the request of Washington.

Meng was arrested on the same day that US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping agreed to a trade ceasefire. While the arrest angered Beijing and has prompted apparent retaliation against Canada, demands of the US on the issue have been relatively muted.

The US ships in the South China Sea on Monday passed through waters surrounding a maritime feature known as Mischief Reef in the Spratly islands, an archipelago claimed by nations including China and the Philippines.

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