This article originally appeared on VICE News.
So much for that "great chemistry." The Trump administration is set to fray whatever closer links it has forged with Beijing recently by listing China among the world's worst offenders in human trafficking, putting it in the same company as typical pariah countries Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe, and North Korea. Analysts warn the decision risks politicizing the report instead of encouraging action and will only "enrage Beijing."
According to multiple reports citing sources within the administration, the move to downgrade China to Tier 3 status will be announced by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he unveils the State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons Report to Congress. The decision comes at a time when relations between Washington and Beijing had appeared to thaw after an uncertain start to the new administration, with US president Donald Trump touting a strong bond and "great chemistry" with Chinese president Xi Jinping after their first meeting in April.
Helping to unveil the report will be Ivanka Trump, who recently led Congress in a bipartisan roundtable discussion about global human trafficking. Despite her calls to end trafficking and forced labor, the White House adviser has herself been embroiled in human rights issues related to her apparel and accessories factories in China.
In an April audit of a factory in China that produces clothing items for the Ivanka Trump fashion line found that employees worked for up to 60 hours per week for as little as $62. Nonprofit group China Labor Watch released a report this month about a factory that makes shoes for the Ivanka Trump brand, saying it was the worst labor-rule violator among dozens of similar factories.
Last month, Hua Haifeng, an activist working for China Labor Watch, was arrested and detained while investigating the conditions at one of the factories producing items for the Ivanka line. His wife also reported being arrested and interrogated about her husband's activities, as well as having her home and movements monitored by police.
Ivanka Trump has removed herself from day-to-day operations at the company but retains ownership. Her company responded to China Labor Watch's report by saying it stopped using that facility in March.
According to China analyst Bill Bishop, the move will "enrage Beijing" but is a sign that Tillerson "has a very low view of Beijing's human rights record." The decision comes at the same time that the US has joined others in the international community in calling for China to lift all restrictions on democracy activist and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who is thought to be close to death after being diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer.
And Trump didn't do the fledgling relationship any favors when he recently tweeted his belief that China was not doing enough to limit the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea. A high-level dialogue last week between US and China officials is not thought to have gone as well as some in the administration have tried to spin it, according to Bishop. Causing many to speculate if Trump's view of Xi and Beijing have quickly changed.
"I believe Beijing has dramatically overestimated its success in 'managing Trump' and may be in for a rude awakening," Bishop said in his Sinocism China newsletter Tuesday.
The announcement Tuesday will mark the first time the administration has publicly rebuked China's human rights record.
In what will be seen in Beijing as another, if modest, slight, Trump on Monday warmly embraced India, a chief rival to China, when he welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington, saying: "During my campaign I pledged that if elected, India would have a true friend in the White House. And that is now exactly what you have — a true friend."
Last year's report placed China on the Tier 2 "Watch List" saying it was a "source, destination, and transit country" for forced labor and sex trafficking. The report focused on internal migrants, who are forced to work in factories and coal mines that are subject to little government oversight.
Tier 3 is reserved for countries that fail to comply with the minimum US standards and are not making significant efforts. Being demoted to Tier 3 brings certain sanctions, but the president has the right to waive these sanctions.
"Given the waiver aspect, it may be that the listing is indeed political, and is intended to send a message to Beijing where Trump has previously been seeking cooperation on a range of issues, most obviously North Korea," James Hannah, assistant head of the Asia program at Chatham House, told VICE News.
China has yet to respond to the reported downgrading.