The Trump administration on Thursday announced new sanctions on a Chinese bank accused of laundering money for North Korean companies and approved a $1.4 billion arms sales package for Taiwan, a pair of measures that is certain to ruffle feathers in Beijing.
Officials said the actions were unrelated and emphasized that the administration was not targeting China. But the moves are likely to raise concerns among Chinese leaders who had sought to get off to a good start with President Trump.
Trump has shown signs of losing patience with China after personally lobbying President Xi Jinping to put more pressure on North Korea to halt its nuclear and ballistic-missile weapons programs. Trump wrote on Twitter last week that China’s efforts have “not worked out,” a declaration that came after the death of American college student Otto Warmbier a few days after returning to the United States following 17 months of detention in North Korea.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the administration was moving to cut off the Bank of Dandong from U.S. financial markets in an effort to block millions of dollars of transactions that funnel money into North Korea for use in its weapons programs.
Under the sanctions, U.S. citizens also will be generally prohibited from doing business with Sun Wei and Ri Song Hyok, who are accused of establishing and running front companies on behalf of North Korea, and Dalian Global Unity Shipping Co., which is accused of transporting 700,000 tons of freight annually, including coal and steel products, between China and North Korea.
The administration announced the sanctions just hours before South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, arrived at the White House for a two-day summit with Trump. Moon campaigned on a platform of greater engagement with Pyongyang, and he has questioned the need for the U.S.-backed THAAD missile defense system that is being installed on the peninsula, which Beijing and Pyongyang have opposed.
Mnuchin said that the United States is “in no way targeting China with these actions” and that U.S. officials “look forward to continuing to work closely with the government of China to stop the illicit financing in North Korea.”
Mnuchin added that this “very significant action” sends the message that the United States will follow the money trail leading to North Korea and continue to crack down on those assisting the country.
“North Korea’s provocative, destabilizing and inhumane behavior will not be tolerated,” Mnuchin said. “We are committed to targeting North Korea’s external enablers and maximizing economic pressure on the regime until it ceases its nuclear and ballistic-missile programs.”
China has repeatedly made clear it opposes “unilateral” sanctions in addition to those agreed to by the United Nations Security Council. Only last week, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said his country opposed the "long-arm jurisdiction" of the United States in this matter.
“We have repeatedly stressed this stance in our communication with the United States, and the U.S. side is also clear about it,” he said during a regular news conference.
In a separate announcement, administration officials said they had approved an arms package for Taiwan that includes advanced rocket and anti-ship missile systems — another measure China has repeatedly said that it firmly opposes.
The package is slightly larger than one that was put on hold at the end of the Obama administration, the officials said, but includes largely the same weapons capabilities.
The sale is considered relatively modest compared with past arms packages. Still, China views the self-ruled island as part of the country and is likely to oppose any such arms transfers.
As president-elect, Trump broke with protocol and accepted a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in December, angering Xi.
Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, said Thursday that China had significant economic leverage over North Korea and suggested that it could put more pressure on Pyongyang.
The Trump administration had long signaled that it wanted to move forward with an arms sale to Taiwan but held off because officials worried the sale would make it harder to secure China’s cooperation on North Korea.
“It shows, we believe, our support for Taiwan’s ability to maintain a sufficient self-defense policy,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday of the arms deal. “There’s no change, I should point out, to our one-China policy.”
Trump is scheduled to meet with China’s Xi on the sidelines of an economic summit in Hamburg next week, White House officials said.
Simon Denyer contributed reporting from Beijing.