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Foreign Policy

Pence’s China Policy Speech Doesn't Add Up

Oct 16 , 2018
  • Li Zheng

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations


On October 4, United States Vice President Mike Pence delivered a one-hour speech on the U.S.’ China policy at the Hudson Institute. The U.S. government announced that the speech would be given a week ago, claiming that it would set the tone of the Trump administration’s China policy. The Chinese government is concerned that the speech merely adds more negative sentiment to the already sensitive relationship between China and the U.S. and that it suggests to the international community that a new Cold War between the two countries is inevitable. Judging from its content, Pence’s speech served more of a domestic political purpose, as it sought to use China as a scapegoat for U.S. President Donald Trump’s falling public approval.

The speech touched on U.S. feelings of dissatisfaction, suspicion, and misunderstanding toward China in recent years, creating yet more confusion around China-U.S. relations.

The speech did not explain the logic behind the Trump administration’s China policy. The speech was on Trump’s policy toward China, but most of its content was unrelated to the interactions between the two countries. Rather, it was about China’s so-called interference in U.S. internal affairs. China’s interference in U.S. internal affairs is a new and still controversial topic, and it plays only a small part in China-U.S. relations. Like the sudden crisis that has arisen between the two nations, this issue does not characterize their relationship.

The speech failed to address the fundamental problem with the U.S.’ China policy, which is how the U.S. can establish a relationship with China that is sustainable as well as favorable to the U.S. and the rest of the world. Pence did say in his speech that he hopes to establish a constructive relationship with China. It will obviously not be constructive, though, if it consists of the U.S. attempting to reform China through trade, diplomacy, and military pressure. Such an approach will only exacerbate the confrontation and hostility between the two countries and create an irreversible downward spiral.

The speech also did not specify how China has interfered in U.S. internal affairs. Pence cited a lot of supposed evidence of China’s interference, for example China Radio International broadcasting Beijing-friendly programming on over 30 U.S. radio stations, the presence of Chinese Students and Scholars Associations set up by Chinese students in the U.S., and attempts by China to exploit divisions between businesses and federal- and local-level governments on issues like trade to advance its political influence. But the examples cited by Pence reflect obvious political bias. The use of commercial channels to promote one’s own country is an international normal practice. The U.S., for example, uses Voice of America and other forms of media to conduct propaganda in China. The right of Chinese students to freedom of association in the U.S. should be protected by U.S. law and accepted by the U.S. government. And many of the interactions between U.S. businesses and local government and the Chinese government at various levels are not initiated by people in China but are the result of the concerns of local governments in the U.S. over Trump’s extreme trade policies. Ultimately, the U.S. federal and electoral system give local governments and various interest groups the right to fully express their desires. This right is a cornerstone of U.S. political life.

The speech obfuscated the Trump administration’s stance on China. Pence’s speech perpetuated Trump’s consistently contradictory approach to dealings with China: on the one hand, he wants to build a close friendship with China’s leader, but, on the other, he has no qualms about criticizing China’s foreign policies and portraying China’s domestic economic and social policies as appalling conspiracies. Trump ignores the economic downturn in China but considers the sharp fall in Chinese stock markets and the heavy losses suffered by Chinese investors as evidence of the effectiveness of his trade policy. His contradictory statements have undermined the credibility of the U.S. government in China, making it difficult to believe that negotiations with the U.S. can yield long-term results.

Pence suggested that for China-US relations to return to a state of cooperation, the two sides’ relationship must be grounded in fairness, reciprocity, and respect. But it seems from what Pence said this means China making unconditional concessions. The U.S. is allowed to challenge China’s maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea, but China is not allowed to have self-defense capabilities. The U.S. is allowed to step-up its military assistance to Taiwan and thus interfere in China’s internal affairs, but China is not allowed to run commercial advertisements in the US to promote itself. The U.S. is allowed to launch large-scale infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific, but China is not allowed to continue promoting its Belt and Road Initiative. Such double standards stem from U.S. feelings of superiority and the ideology of American exceptionalism, which are in stark contradiction to the spirit of fairness, reciprocity, and fairness touted by its leaders. Pence said that he hopes China will treat the U.S. as an equal, but his demands suggest that the U.S. wants China to treat it as an emperor.

The speech did not present a clear vision of the U.S.’s policy toward China. Pence said that America is reaching out its hand to China and that it hopes China will reach back in the future. But his speech did not address the key issue of China-U.S. competition. For example, what is the lower limit of China-U.S. relations? Should the U.S. and China adhere to a set of common rules? Should China and the U.S. try to avoid falling into some form of new Cold War? How can China and the U.S. move in the same direction? What sort of mechanism does the U.S. hope to use to solve new problems in China-U.S. relations?

These omissions show that Pence’s speech did not help to clarify Trump’s China policy; it did not mark the creation of a new U.S. consensus on China and it did not indicate that a new Cold War between the U.S. and China is inevitable. Dealing with these areas of confusion presents both opportunities and challenges for future China-U.S. relations.

On the upside, this means that the U.S. has not abandoned its positive expectations for its China policy. Many of the issues raised by Pence are long-standing issues in China-U.S. relations. Some others are misunderstandings due to political and ideological factors. It is still possible for China and the U.S. to resolve most of these problems by dispelling misunderstandings and engaging in pragmatic dialogue on conflicts of interest, while leaving some issues that are difficult to resolve in the short term for future discussions. This way of breaking down problems, discussing them one-by-one, and solving them in stages is a relatively mature model used by the two countries since 1972. In the process of communicating to solve such issues, both parties can also discover common interests and create new opportunities for cooperation. China’s official response to Pence’s speech has shown that China has not abandoned its constructive relationship with the U.S. and does not want to let the current tensions in China-U.S. relations get out of hand.

On the downside, these areas of confusion mean that the U.S. is likely to take more unilateral measures to demonstrate the effectiveness of its China policy. Because the U.S. lacks the will to solve many issues in China-U.S. relations through positive engagement with China, it is more likely to adopt sudden and constantly escalating measures to force China into making concessions. This approach will not only have unexpected negative consequences for bilateral relations, as is the case with the current trade tensions, but may also have counter-productive outcomes for world peace and the U.S. economy. Except for a small minority of people who hold deep prejudices against China, nobody wishes to see a complete breakdown in China-U.S. relations and a move toward full-on confrontation. Such an outcome would mean the failure of Trump's worldview of “great power competition.”

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