The U.S. State Department on Tuesday named China one of the world’s worst offenders in the fight against human trafficking, a move likely to increase tension between the two nations.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, standing beside White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump, unveiled to Congress this year’s iteration of the Trafficking in Persons Report, which covers more than 180 countries and bills itself as the world’s most comprehensive analysis on the subject.
In what will likely be seen as an affront to China, the report dropped the country to a “Tier 3” ranking, the lowest grade the report offers, for failing to prevent human trafficking or the use of forced labor. Being designated a Tier 3 country ― a group that also includes Syria, North Korea and Russia ― can result in sanctions and affect a country’s relationships with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
“China was downgraded to Tier 3 status in this report, in part because it has not taken serious steps” to stop its support of North Korean forced labor, Tillerson said.
The secretary of state criticized North Korea for sending workers abroad, primarily to Russia and China, to perform hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of forced labor.
The report calls on China to end forced labor in government facilities and step up its efforts to investigate human trafficking. It is the first time since 2013 that China has been lowered to Tier 3 status. (It was upgraded again to Tier 2 the following year.)
President Donald Trump has lately sought to court diplomatic favor with Beijing in his attempts to intensify pressure on North Korea’s increasingly active weapons program. Trump’s tone has cooled in recent weeks, and earlier this month he declared on Twitter that such efforts had “not worked out.” “At least I know China tried!” he wrote.
At the event, Ivanka Trump, the president’s elder daughter, also gave a speech honoring eight individuals from around the world working to combat the issue. Susan Coppedge, the United States’ ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons, then presented the group with awards for their efforts.
“Each of these heroes is a source of inspiration,” Trump said. “We celebrate and we stand with you.”
Notably, the report also dropped Iraq and Myanmar from its list of the world’s worst offenders when it comes to child soldiers. Reuters reported last week that Tillerson had disregarded the recommendations of department experts and senior U.S. diplomats to keep both countries on the list, and that he also rejected a proposal to add Afghanistan. Tillerson cited Afghanistan as a country taking positive steps to implement laws that target human trafficking.
Human Rights Watch called on Tillerson to return both Iraq and Myanmar to the list, saying their reclassification to a less severe category “harms children.”
“Taking Burma and Iraq off the list when they continue to use child soldiers is both contrary to U.S. law and harms children still in the ranks,” Jo Becker, the group’s children’s rights advocacy director, said in a statement this week, using a former name for Myanmar. “Secretary of State Tillerson apparently believes the list is subject to backroom political calculations, rather than facts on the ground and U.S. law. Unless Tillerson reverses this action, he will gravely damage U.S. credibility in ending the use of children in warfare.”
The State Department is required by the Child Soldiers Protection Act to identify countries that recruit or use child soldiers, Human Rights Watch notes. Countries on such a list are then subject to reduced military aid from the U.S. without a presidential waiver.