Vice President Mike Pence launched a broad attack against Beijing Thursday, accusing China of "predatory" economic practices, military aggression against the US and of trying to undermine President Donald Trump and harm his chances of winning re-election.
Citing Trump's move to levy tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese imports and threatening to "levy even more, with the possibility of substantially more than doubling that number," Pence said that "the American people deserve to know that, in response to the strong stand that President Trump has taken, Beijing is pursuing a comprehensive and coordinated campaign to undermine support for the President."
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The vice president cited US intelligence agencies but offered no evidence to back up his claims, which are likely to inflame relations between Washington and Beijing, already at their lowest point in years thanks to the burgeoning trade war, policy differences and US allegations of political interference.
'To put it bluntly'
"To put it bluntly, President Trump's leadership is working. China wants a different American President," Pence said.
The intervention by the vice president marks a significant broadening in the rhetoric used by the Trump administration to confront China, linking issues around military, trade and domestic politics.
The speech reflects a decision by the Trump administration to make a deliberate pivot on China policy, a senior administration official told CNN. The long held expectation that China's behavior would be tempered as the world lowered trade barriers and offered greater political engagement has not come to pass, this official said, prompting the re-evaluation.
There hasn't been a greater respect for human rights, reciprocity on markets and intellectual property, the official said, so Trump is building a "constructive and results oriented" policy toward China. "There are many avenues for cooperation, but the administration doesn't shy from calling out China as a competitor," the official said.
Pence accused the Chinese of suppressing its citizens at home with the creation of "an unparalleled surveillance state," of brutally repressing religious minorities and of oppressing countries abroad through loan programs that favor Beijing and leave those nations beholden to China.
The vice president said that Chinese security agencies have masterminded "the wholesale theft of American technology."
The vice president delivered his speech as Bloomberg News reported that during their construction in China, tiny microchips were hidden in computer motherboards sold to major US companies such as Amazon and Apple that allowed hackers to access any network that included the altered equipment.
The article said US officials are describing the operation as the most significant supply chain attack known to have been carried out against American companies.
Pence didn't mention that revelation, but he said that Beijing works to steal US intellectual property, leading to a "new consensus" among US businesses about investing there.
Pence called on one firm in particular to stop cooperating with China. Google, Pence said, "should immediately end development of the 'Dragonfly' app that will strengthen Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers," he said.
"Worst of all, China has initiated an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 elections, and the environment leading into the 2020 presidential elections," Pence said.
Part of the administration's new strategy to counter China involves public education. They believe it's important that Americans understand and are aware of the malign activities of China that have gathered in intensity.
"A lot of these activities are going to be dealt with if people know about them. In the political realm, strengthening election security," the official said. "But what we're really counting on is our fellow citizens to stand up for their convictions and to recognize when they're being taken advantage of." The official said the White House expects American institutions to "not accept money from China, which is legal, with clear strings attached."
"Understanding the Chinese propaganda efforts is going to be key," the official said.
Pence also accused Beijing of military aggression, saying that "Beijing is also using its power like never before."
"Chinese ships routinely patrol around the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan," Pence said.
"And while China's leader stood in the Rose Garden of the White House in 2015 and said that his country had, and I quote, 'no intention to militarize the South China Sea,' today, Beijing has deployed advanced anti-ship and anti-air missiles atop an archipelago of military bases constructed on artificial islands," Pence said.
He said that China now spends as much on its military as the rest of Asia combined, and is prioritizing capabilities to erode US military advantages "on land, at sea, in the air, and in space."
"China wants nothing less than to push the United States of America from the Western Pacific and attempt to prevent us from coming to the aid of our allies," Pence said. "But they will fail."
The speech, which will likely strain relations further, came days after a Chinese military vessel nearly collided with a US Navy ship in the waters around the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Pence described the encounter in which a Chinese naval vessel came within 45 yards (41 meters) of the USS Decatur as "reckless harassment," and repeated a US refrain: that the United States Navy "will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand. We will not be intimidated; we will not stand down."
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian defended the naval maneuver on Tuesday, accusing the US of threatening China's sovereignty and safety by repeatedly sending warships to disputed areas of the South China Sea.
"The Chinese military will resolutely perform its defense duties and continue to take all necessary measures to safeguard our sovereignty and the regional peace and stability," Wu said.
Pence's speech comes a week after Trump stood in front of world leaders at the UN and accused Beijing of meddling in US politics.
Citing US intelligence agencies, Pence said Russia's actions in the US "pale in comparison" to Beijing's interference.
The vice president cited a Chinese government document, called "Propaganda and Censorship Notice," which he claimed laid out a strategy aimed at "splitting apart different domestic groups in the United States," much as US intelligence services have unanimously concluded that Russia did in the 2016 elections. They continue to warn Russia is actively trying to interfere in November's midterm elections.
Among the institutions targeted for Chinese Communist Party coercion, according to the vice president, are "businesses, movie studios, universities, think tanks, scholars (and) journalists."
"Beijing is employing a whole-of-government approach to advance its influence and benefit its interests. It's employing this power in more proactive and coercive ways to interfere in the domestic policies of this country and to interfere in the politics of the United States," Pence will say on Thursday.
Last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang hit back at accusations that China was attempting to steer policy making in Washington, suggested the US was the country "most accustomed" to interfering in other countries' affairs.
Pence also took a forceful line on Taiwan, the self-ruled island which Beijing views as part of its territory, saying that "while our administration will continue to respect our One China Policy ... Taiwan's embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people."
Under the "One China Policy," Washington officially recognized Beijing and removed its embassy from Taiwan, though it continues to regard the sovereignty status of the island as unresolved.
Pence condemned efforts by Beijing to pressure allies of Taipei to sever their ties and embrace China, which he said "threaten the stability of the Taiwan Strait."
The focus on Taiwan comes after CNN reported on proposals by the US Navy's Pacific Fleet to stage a major show of force, in an apparent demonstration of US readiness to deter and counter antagonistic Chinese military actions.
The plan, which was relayed to CNN by several US defense officials, suggests sailing ships and flying aircraft near Chinese-controlled waters in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
This ongoing battle for influence between the two countries on the global stage has become a major policy concern in Washington in recent months.
In his speech Thursday, the US vice president repeated claims that Beijing is using billions of dollars in infrastructure loans to countries across the world to tie them to the Chinese government, a practice termed "debt diplomacy."
"The terms of those loans are opaque at best, and the benefits flow overwhelmingly to Beijing," Pence said.
In particular, Pence referenced Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. It was commissioned by the local government with Chinese funds in 2010 but when Sri Lanka was unable to pay back their loans, a Chinese state-owned company took ownership.
"It may soon become a forward military base for China's growing blue-water navy," Pence said.