Vice President Pence on Thursday issued a broad indictment of the methods behind China’s rise to becoming a major economic power, asserting in a sharply critical speech that Beijing has sought to undermine U.S. interests across the globe — and to undermine President Trump in the midterm elections.
Speaking at the conservative Hudson Institute, Pence accused China of using trade, diplomatic overtures and military expansion to spread its influence, and he called on American business leaders, academic scholars and journalists to counter Beijing’s campaign.
Trump “will not back down” from the challenge, Pence said. He added that China “wants a different American president” and that the nation “is meddling in America’s democracy” ahead of the midterm elections, an accusation that echoed a view the president first raised at the United Nations last week.
Pence also cast China as a greater threat to election security than Russia, whose interference in the 2016 election is the subject of a special counsel’s investigation that Trump routinely calls a “witch hunt.”
“As a senior career member of our intelligence community told me just this week, what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country,” Pence said. “And the American people deserve to know it.”
The speech marked another escalation in rising tensions between Washington and Beijing amid a deepening trade war and new military hostilities. Top White House aides have said the administration is developing new policies to mark a turn in the bilateral relationship away from cooperation in many areas and toward outright competition.
Hours after Pence spoke, China rejected the allegations of election interference as “completely ridiculous.”
“We have no interest in interfering in the internal affairs and elections of the United States,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. “The international community sees very clearly, in fact, which country is the one that invades the sovereignty of other countries, interferes in other countries’ internal affairs, and damages the interests of other countries.”
Hua echoed the view that the United States was seeking to contain China’s rise. “No one can obstruct the Chinese people from unswervingly following the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics and realizing even greater achievements,” she said.
Trump has continued to offer personal praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping, as he continues to try to enlist Beijing’s support in his administration’s efforts to pressure North Korea into relinquishing its nuclear weapons. Using the vice president to deliver the address could help the president maintain a good working relationship with Xi, although Trump acknowledged last week that the Chinese leader may no longer consider them friends.
But Pence’s remarks offered the clearest declaration that the White House is moving forward with a harder-edge strategy, which analysts in Beijing view as aimed at containing China’s rise. The vice president emphasized that China’s economy has worsened in recent months, attributing some of the declines to the Trump administration’s tariffs on more than $250 billion in Chinese goods.
“We don’t want China’s markets to suffer. In fact, we want them to thrive,” Pence said. “But the United States wants Beijing to pursue trade policies that are free, fair and reciprocal. And we will continue to stand and demand that they do.”
In a wide-ranging interview on NPR on Thursday morning, Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai suggested the Trump administration has not shown good faith in negotiating with Beijing over trade.
“The U.S. position keeps changing all the time, so we don’t know exactly what the U.S. would want as priorities,” he said. “And number two, I think there’s been some attempt on the U.S. side to force something like the U.S. will get 100 percent, and China will get zero. I don’t think this is fair.”
The animosity between the world’s two largest economic powers has raised concerns about whether the clash could play out dangerously in the coming months. This week, a Chinese warship conducted a risky maneuver and sailed within 45 yards of a U.S. Navy destroyer in the contested South China Sea, where China has sought to establish maritime dominance in the crucial shipping corridor.
“We will not be intimidated, and we will not stand down,” Pence said, referring to the incident.
At a U.N. conference last week, Trump accused Beijing of trying to influence the midterm elections in retaliation for the trade war. The president did not offer evidence of such actions by Beijing, although administration officials told reporters that they viewed several Chinese actions as tantamount to interference.
Pence also failed Thursday to offer many examples of what he called an “unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 elections and the environment leading into the 2020 presidential elections.”
He cited the tariffs aimed at agricultural industries in Midwest states where Trump enjoyed significant support in 2016, as well as an advertising supplement purchased by Chinese state media in the Des Moines Register, as examples of Beijing’s influence campaign.
Pence said China is not being forthcoming about the real aims of its military expansion in the South China Sea and elsewhere, and that it was cheating and effectively extorting U.S. firms while persecuting and subjugating the Chinese people.
“Beijing now requires many American businesses to hand over their trade secrets as the cost of doing business in China. It also coordinates and sponsors the acquisition of American firms to gain ownership of their creations,” Pence said. “Worst of all, Chinese security agencies have masterminded the wholesale theft of American technology — including cutting-edge military blueprints.”
He called on Google to halt development on “Dragonfly,” a new search engine for the Chinese market that critics have said would allow information searches to more easily be tracked by the government. The application “will strengthen Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers,” Pence said.
He also accused China of using “debt diplomacy” to trap other countries into political cooperation through questionable loans. Drawing applause while referring to Taiwan, Pence said that while the United States will continue to abide by the one-China policy that recognizes Beijing’s authority, “America will always believe Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people.”
Pence sought to put China on the defensive over human rights, citing the persecution of up to 1 million Uighurs, a Muslim minority group in the western part of the country, who have been detained in “reeducation” camps.
And the vice president criticized China for blocking U.S. media websites and making it more difficult for Western journalists to secure visas, a move that Pence said came after the New York Times published critical stories about the wealth of Chinese leaders several years ago.
Trump and his aides have lashed out this week after the Times published a lengthy investigative report alleging fraud behind the president’s personal wealth. But in reference to China, Pence declared that it was “great to see more journalists reporting the truth without fear or favor” and “digging deep to find where China is interfering in our society — and why.”
Gerry Shih in Hong Kong contributed this report.