WASHINGTON: In the buzzwords of George W. Bush’s administration, China needed to become a “responsible stakeholder.” For Barack Obama, China had an interest in embracing “the rules-based international order.”
President Donald Trump’s message to Beijing is, true to his character, starker. Trump, his Vice President Mike Pence vowed, “will not back down.”
On Thursday, Pence delivered one of the most hawkish speeches by a senior US official since the two countries restored ties four decades ago.
Pence assailed China as a military aggressor, a prolific thief of US technology and, controversially, as interfering in American elections.
Yet in a sign that the United States still sees a need for China, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit on Monday after his latest negotiations in North Korea, the nuclear-armed regime which counts on Beijing as its diplomatic and economic lifeline.
Pompeo, speaking to the traveling press on his way to Asia, said China was “determined to support our efforts” on North Korea despite the high tensions.
Pence in his speech said the United States still hoped for improved relations with China but otherwise drew a bleak picture.
He said the United States will keep ramping up its military spending to counter a rising Beijing and he renewed threats to more than double the US$250 billion in tariffs placed on Chinese products.
“I do think that this marks a significant change in the bipartisan approach to China that has dominated over the last several decades,” said Jamie Fly, a former official in the George W. Bush administration who heads the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Pence’s speech “doesn’t completely preclude cooperation on narrow areas like North Korea, but it’s much more clear in the US assessment of Chinese intentions and China’s goal of really replacing the US and pushing back US power,” he said.
Wide US pessimism on China
While Trump and Pence are polarizing figures, the hard line on China has been increasingly shared across the US political spectrum.
Few policymakers with ties to the rival Democratic Party raised broad objections when the Trump White House in December released a National Security Strategy that cast China as a competitor.
The bargain set forth by former president Bill Clinton when he welcomed China into the global trading order — that greater prosperity would bring reforms — has fallen flat, with President Xi Jinping increasingly clamping down on domestic dissent and religious freedoms tightly controlled.
US business leaders, who long advocated warm ties with China as they coveted the world’s largest consumer market, have cooled markedly toward Beijing amid complaints of widespread industrial espionage, which Beijing denies.
A survey published in August by the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Americans who viewed China favorably had fallen to 38%.
Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking China expert who now heads the Asia Society in New York, in a recent speech said that “engagement,” for decades the narrative in relations for both Washington and Beijing, “is now officially and effectively dead.”
“As a result, I fear we may now also find ourselves on the pathway to medium-term strategic confrontation, as each side competes for ascendancy in what is now seen increasingly on both sides as a zero-sum game,” he said.
Domestic factors for Pence
China denounced Pence’s speech as “ridiculous.”
But it has largely stayed measured in its public statements, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi promising last week at the United Nations that the Asian power had no ambition to overtake the United States as the pre-eminent global power and wanted to nurture a stable multilateral system.
Without naming the work, he voiced anxiety about the popularity in the United States of Harvard scholar Graham Allison’s theory of the “Thucydides Trap,” which cites the lessons of ancient Athens and Sparta to predict inevitable US rivalry with a rising China.
Beijing may also be emboldened by the turmoil in US politics, with chief Asian allies Japan and South Korea both unnerved by simmering trade tensions with Trump.
And Pence was clearly speaking at least partly for a domestic audience in his speech, delivered at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, a little over a month before critical congressional elections.
Pence charged that China was taking action that is more malicious than Russia’s, just as Trump is under a cloud as special counsel Robert Mueller probes whether his presidential campaign colluded with Moscow.
And as evidence of China’s election meddling, Pence cited a paid advertisement in a US newspaper and countertariffs that targeted politically important states — both steps that are commonplace.
“China poses a major challenge to the US economic, political and strategic posture, but gratuitously demonizing them with half-truths and distortions only complicates efforts to find a new balance of interests and a redefined relationship with Beijing,” said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.