His remarks, given at the Hudson Institute in Washington on Oct. 4, signal a new era for the U.S.–China relationship.
Pence offered a direct criticism of the Chinese Communist Party’s wide-ranging tactics to advance its interests in the United States and globally, including Beijing’s meddling in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections with propaganda to influence public opinion; human-rights violations within its borders; its censorship of Hollywood films that enter the Chinese market; and its bullying of Taiwan.
He emphasized that the Trump administration would take a proactive approach to countering Beijing’s aggression, calling it a “reset” of “America’s economic and strategic relationship with China.”
Beijing’s official response was predictable. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said Pence’s comments were “unfounded accusations.”
“This is nothing but hearsay evidence, confusing right and wrong and creating something out of thin air,” Hua said.
China’s state media rejected the claims. An article appearing on Oct. 5 in state-run media Xinhua titled “Not-so-Bright Rumor-Spreading: a Critique of U.S. Leader Using Absurd Arguments to Defame China” rejects each accusation that Pence made.
For example, regarding state-sponsored hacking, the article says China is also a victim of hacking. On the topic of Chinese state media’s running an advertorial in the Des Moines Register to influence Iowa voters, the article claims such ads are typical and that other countries also do it.
About China placing third-world countries in a “debt trap” through massive loans for infrastructure projects, the article says, “Don’t be envious, jealous, or hateful about China and developing countries fostering relations.”
Meanwhile, an Oct. 5 article in the global edition of the hawkish state-run newspaper Global Times, cited articles from Western media outlets that have headlines portraying Trump actions as anti-China, as well as infographics from Axios and the FiveThirtyEight blog predicting that Democrats will win U.S. congressional elections and showing negative approval ratings for President Donald Trump.
Beijing-based artist Wang Peng said that many of his friends felt Pence’s speech was an example of the United States finally understanding the crux of the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic and foreign policies—and recognizing what to do about it.
“It [the speech] is a reflection on and rectification of past policies of pacification. My friends hope that they [U.S. government] will not be lenient, and impose sanctions on Chinese senior officials,” he told the Chinese-language Epoch Times.
Chinese scholar and former arts magazine publisher Wu Zuolai, who currently lives in Los Angeles, says Pence’s speech marked a significant change in the U.S.–Sino relationship. “The U.S. has gone from being disappointed [with China] to giving up hope,” he said. He hopes the United States’ awareness of Beijing’s ambitions will allow it to curb China’s aggression.
Chen Weijian, editor-in-chief of Beijing Spring, a magazine that focuses on democracy activism in China, is concerned that while Pence has outlined the administration’s proactive strategy of putting China on notice, there are many pro-Beijing agents that will lobby Washington to advance the Chinese regime’s interests.
Meanwhile, China commentator Tang Hao said that Pence’s speech represents a “counteroffensive” against China’s long-term infiltration of the United States.
Just before Pence made his speech, reports emerged that the U.S. Pacific Fleet is planning a series of operations during November to warn against China’s military aggression.
“The Navy plan suggests sailing ships and flying aircraft near China’s territorial waters in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait in freedom-of-navigation operations to demonstrate the right of free passage in international waters,” according to an Oct. 3 CNN report, citing anonymous U.S. defense officials.
What could have prompted this decision to display U.S. might?
In fact, Pence mentioned a recent incident that played out in the South China Sea, exemplifying China’s aggression.
On Sept. 30, a U.S. naval ship USS Decatur was conducting a freedom of navigation operation in the waters near the Gaven Reef when the Chinese navy’s PRC Warship 170 came within 45 yards—forcing the Decatur to maneuver to avoid a collision.
Given that the U.S. ship was sailing near small reefs that aren’t within the bases China built up in the South China Sea recently—meaning it was conducting an innocent passage—China’s move is an elevated level of aggression, according to Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S.-based think tank.
“All they did was sail through what [China] would consider territorial waters, and yet, [the U.S. Navy] got the strongest reaction ever,” Glaser told the U.S. Naval Institute in an Oct. 3 interview.
Glaser explained that the move was contrary to protocol and likely came from Chinese leader Xi Jinping himself—since naval “rules of engagement” are usually set by the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission. Xi is chair of that agency.
Glaser says China’s increased aggression “likely has more to do with unhappiness about other recent interactions” with the United States such as the ongoing trade disputes, according to the U.S. Naval Institute report.
In his speech, Pence condemned the naval incident as an example of China’s bullying tactics on the international stage. “Despite such reckless harassment, the United States Navy will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand,” he said. “We will not be intimidated and we will not stand down.”