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U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday accused China of seeking to meddle in the Nov. 6 U.S. congressional elections, saying Beijing did not want his Republican Party to do well because of his pugnacious stance on trade.
"China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election, coming up in November. Against my administration," Trump told a U.N. Security Council meeting whose ostensible subject was nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Trump, chairing the Council for the first time since becoming U.S. president, did not provide any evidence for his allegation, which China immediately rejected during the same meeting.
"We did not and will not interfere in any country's domestic affairs. We refuse to accept any unwarranted accusations against China," China's top diplomat Wang Yi told the Council.
The United States and China are embroiled in a trade war, sparked by Trump's accusations that China has long sought to steal U.S. intellectual property, limit access to its own market and unfairly subsidize state-owned companies.
Later on Wednesday, Trump referred to a Chinese government-run media company's four-page supplement in the Sunday Des Moines Register promoting the mutual benefits of U.S.-China trade. The practice of foreign governments buying space in U.S. papers to promote trade is common and differs from a clandestine operation run by a national intelligence agency.
"China is actually placing propaganda ads in the Des Moines Register and other papers, made to look like news," Trump said in a Twitter post.
Then a senior Trump administration official said China uses political, economic, commercial, military and information tools to influence U.S. public opinion and promote the interests of the Chinese government and Communist Party.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence plans to make a speech next week detailing the allegations, said the official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, adding that the U.S. government was working to declassify further information on the matter.
Trump also used the Security Council session to defend the U.S. withdrawal in May from a 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran, hint at progress in U.S. efforts to curb North Korea's nuclear program, and to criticize Iran and Russia for supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country's war, now in its eighth year.
"The Syrian regime's butchery is enabled by Russia and Iran," Trump said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded in a Twitter post, saying the United States had "abused" the Council and is "further isolated."
Trump's focus on China and his allegation of election meddling came as a surprise during a formal meeting around the Security Council's horseshoe table that was expected to concentrate on the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
"They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade and we are winning on trade, we are winning at every level. We don't want them to meddle or interfere in our upcoming election," said Trump, who is attending the U.N.'s annual gathering of world leaders.
Trump himself is not up for re-election until 2020 but November's voting will decide whether his Republican Party can keep control of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. Some opinion polls show that the Democratic Party could make a strong showing, notably in the House.
In the latest salvo in the trade dispute, U.S. tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods and retaliatory taxes by Beijing on $60 billion worth of U.S. products kicked in on Monday, unnerving global financial markets.
During his roughly 10-minute speech, Trump made no reference to U.S. allegations that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. election that brought him to power. The allegations have dogged his presidency and have given rise to an investigation by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller into potential collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign, which Trump rejects.
In July at a summit in Helsinki, Trump accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin's denials his government ran an operation to hack Democratic Party computers and spread disinformation on social media. Trump frequently describes investigations into the interference as a political witch hunt.
Trump also used the session to defend his May 8 decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal under which Tehran limited its nuclear program in return for the easing of U.S., European and international economic sanctions.
The core U.S. sanctions that seek to choke off Iran's oil exports, the life blood of its economy, will resume in early November and Trump promised that "after that the United States will pursue additional sanctions, tougher than ever before, to counter the entire range of Iran's malign behavior."
The United States accuses Iran of supporting destabilizing proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
Trump asked the Security Council to work with the United States to "ensure the Iranian regime changes its behavior and never acquires a nuclear bomb."
China's Wang encouraged Iran to keep its commitments under the nuclear deal and, in an apparent riposte to Trump, said "at the same time, the legitimate right of all countries to normal economic relations and trade with Iran should be respected."
While Iran has made clear that it has little interest in talks with the United States following Washington's abrogation of the accord, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met with Trump in June about his country's nuclear program.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Pyongyang next month to discuss North Korean denuclearization efforts ahead of a planned second summit between Kim and Trump, the U.S. State Department said on Wednesday.