UNITED NATIONS • US President Donald Trump on Wednesday admitted that his friendship with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping could be over, as he accused Beijing of undermining his prospects in the upcoming elections.
With tensions growing sharply between the two sides on a range of issues, Mr Trump said China wanted him to suffer an electoral setback at the vital mid-term polls in November as payback for his hard line over trade.
Mr Trump has spoken many times of his friendship with President Xi, praising the Chinese leader for his role in helping bring pressure to bear on North Korea over its nuclear programme. But asked at a press conference in New York how Mr Xi could remain his friend given the hike in tensions, Mr Trump indicated that he preferred to be respected than liked.
"He may not be a friend of mine any more, but I think he probably respects me," said Mr Trump.
Washington this week enacted new tariffs against China covering another US$200 billion (S$273 billion) of its imports, shrugging off threats of countermeasures from Beijing. China has vowed to retaliate with duties on US$60 billion in US goods.
The accusation of electoral interference first came during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council that Mr Trump chaired 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," Mr 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."
Mr 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...," he told a press conference.
In Washington, a senior White House official told reporters 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 soya beans - a hugely important trade in the electorally crucial state of Iowa - as retaliation for Mr 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," Mr Wang said in the same session. "We did not and will not interfere in any country's domestic affairs. We refuse to accept any unwarranted accusations against China."
However, Mr Trump followed up with a series of tweets accusing China's government of paying for newspaper space in Iowa to push its message.
These "propaganda ads" are being placed "because we are beating them on trade, opening markets", he tweeted on Wednesday.
The Chinese state media purchased a four-page advertising supplement in the Des Moines Register in Iowa this week at-tacking Mr Trump's trade policies and touting China as "an example for the world".
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a separate briefing that such ads were commonplace and allowed by US law. "To say this... is China's government interfering in the US elections is totally far-fetched and without foundation in facts."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS