China-US relations

Beijing must continue to hold high ground and resist US provocation

A speech by American Vice-President Mike Pence marks a worrying turning point in policy towards China that could plunge the two nations into a more dangerous tit-for-tat cycle than their trade war

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 October, 2018, 9:58pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 October, 2018, 10:15pm

American vice-presidents are a heartbeat away from the presidency, but further from centre-stage. One exception that does not provide a happy precedent is the leading part played by Dick Cheney, George W. Bush’s vice-president, in building political and public support for the flawed case for the ill-fated United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Current Vice-President Mike Pence’s fearmongering against China is a reminder of it. His speech this week to the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, not only had undertones of history repeating itself but marked a worrying turning point in US policy towards China.

It broke new ground in the present trade war, putting US-China differences in an ideological context that is not positive for negotiation and compromise. It is an unprecedented roll-out of President Donald Trump’s China strategy that could plunge the two nations into a more dangerous tit-for-tat cycle than their trade war.

A week after Trump accused China of electoral meddling, Pence enlarged on the theme, accusing Beijing of trying to influence public opinion in both the November midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election and undermine Trump’s presidency. In particular, he cited tariffs targeting the production of states that voted for Trump in 2016, and an advertisement placed in a US paper by state media criticising the president’s trade war.

China-US relations at an ‘impasse’ after Pence’s wholesale criticism

Flagging a more assertive stance across the whole spectrum of US-China relations, he broadened the attack to include political infiltration, such as exploiting divisions between local and federal governments to advance Beijing’s influence, spying by student groups, and threats to American businesses as well as the usual trade and commercial grievances, such as intellectual property theft.

If there were any doubt that the administration is setting the narrative and tone to prepare public opinion for an escalation of tension, it was dispelled by an anecdote from Pence about a briefing in which a senior intelligence official said China’s activities across the country were worse than Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.

Beijing has heaped ridicule on Pence’s claims. But this does not dispel fears that long-term conflict is unavoidable. As with Cheney’s presentation of the trumped-up case for invading Iraq, the impact on the US public’s view of Trump’s China stance has to be a worry. The contrast with presidents who saw Chinese students as ambassadors for American culture and values is stark. Pence did not offer any strategy for managing China’s alleged tactics other than pushing back. In the face of ideological conflict that is non-negotiable, China must resist provocation in the battle for public opinion and hold the high ground of free trade and its advocacy of globalisation.