ABOARD AIR FORCE TWO, ABOVE THE SOUTH CHINA SEA — When President Trump meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Argentina later this month, the escalating tension between the world’s two global powers will face a crucial test. If China wants to avoid an all-out cold war with the United States and its partners, it must fundamentally change its behavior, according to Vice President Pence. The United States, he assured me, won’t back down.
As Pence arrived Tuesday in Singapore to represent the United States at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, the question on the minds of all the region’s leaders is whether Washington and Beijing are headed into a protracted, long-term economic and strategic confrontation. Pence and Xi will both attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders summit in Papua New Guinea later this week, but they won’t meet. Xi is set to meet Trump in Buenos Aires at the upcoming Group of 20 meeting, which starts on Nov. 30.
Pence told me in an interview that Trump is leaving the door open for a deal with Xi in Argentina, but only if Beijing is willing to make massive changes that the United States is demanding in its economic, military and political activities. The vice president said this is China’s best (if not last) chance to avoid a cold-war scenario with the United States.
“I think much of that will depend on Argentina,” Pence said. “The president’s attitude is, we want to make sure they know where we stand, what we are prepared to do, so they can come to Argentina with concrete proposals that address not just the trade deficit that we face … We’re convinced China knows where we stand.”
In addition to trade, Pence said China must offer concessions on several issues, including but not limited to its rampant intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, restricted access to Chinese markets, respect for international rules and norms, efforts to limit freedom of navigation in international waters and Chinese Communist Party interference in the politics of Western countries.
If Beijing doesn’t come up with significant and concrete concessions, the United States is prepared to escalate economic, diplomatic and political pressure on China, Pence said. He believes the U.S. economy is strong enough to weather such an escalation while the Chinese economy is less durable.
“We really believe we are in a strong position either way. We are at $250 billion [in tariffs] now; we can more than double that,” Pence said. “I don’t think it’s a matter of promises. We’re looking for results. We’re looking for a change of posture.”
On Tuesday morning, Pence huddled in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who recently returned from his own meeting with Xi. Pence said Xi’s new outreach to Japan is one of many signs that Beijing is finally taking the Trump administration’s demands seriously.
“I leave Japan more convinced than ever that China got the message,” Pence said. “They know what our administration’s position is. They know what the president’s position is.”
Pence’s mission this week in Southeast Asia is to reassure allies and partners that the United States is offering the region a real and competitive alternative to China’s multitrillion-dollar One Belt, One Road initiative. The Trump administration believes Beijing is using predatory lending schemes that undermine the rule of law and good governance in countries that participate.
While in the region, Pence is not reprising the ultra-critical China speech he gave last month at the Hudson Institute, which laid out the new administration approach in stark terms. Rather, he is trying to make the affirmative case that the United States and its partners have a better vision and can offer better long-term security and prosperity for the region.
“We seek an Indo-Pacific where every nation … is free to follow its own path and pursue its own interests, where the seas and skies are open to all engaged in peaceful activity, and where sovereign nations grow stronger together,” Pence said at a Tokyo news conference. “Authoritarianism and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific. And I know this vision is shared by the United States and Japan.”
U.S. and Japanese officials negotiated a joint statement laying out several areas of cooperation intended to implement the Trump administration’s “Indo-Pacific strategy,” including coordination on liquefied natural gas projects, civil nuclear energy cooperation and development assistance cooperation that includes Australia. These “deliverables” are small but significant steps toward showing that the United States is not alone in providing a reasonable alternative for Southeast Asian and Pacific nations to China’s offers.
The trip itself is meant to show the United States has no intention of ceding influence or control over the region to Beijing. On the way from Tokyo to Singapore, Pence’s plane crossed the South China Sea only 50 miles or so from the Spratly Islands, where China has erected military facilities on artificial islands in violation of its international commitments.
Pence told me the flight was something of a “freedom of navigation” mission in and of itself. “We will not be intimidated,” he said. “We will not stand down. We will continue to exercise freedom of navigation.”
I asked him what would happen if Beijing doesn’t agree to act in Asia in a way that can avoid a cold war with the United States.
“Then so be it,” Pence said. “We are here to stay.”