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Foreign Policy

Pence’s Speech: Key Turning Point or a Play for the Midterms?

Oct 15 , 2018
  • Nong Hong

    Head of Institute for China-America Studies (ICAS)

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U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, in his speech on October 4, 2018 at the Hudson Institute, a DC based conservative think tank, signaled a far tougher American line on China. Pence made various allegations about China’s foreign policy and domestic politics, although much of what he laid out was a repetition of previous Trump administration statements on China. In that light, it is worth considering the Trump administration’s motivations for taking such an adversarial public stance now. Pence articulated U.S. objections to China’s domestic politics, touching on human rights, freedom of speech and religious freedom. His complaints about China’s foreign policy were much broader, ranging from political and security issues like China’s moves in the South China Sea, military expansion and pressure on Taiwan, to economic issues such as allegations of “debt diplomacy,” to educational and cultural issues, like the allegation that Chinese students studying in the U.S. are pressured to provide information to Chinese authorities.

Pence’s speech opened with an explanation of the path President Trump has taken in shaping his administration’s China policy. Pence attempted to provide reasoning for Trump’s decision to take a new, “hard line” approach on China by associating this choice with the accusation that China is “employing a whole-of-government approach, using political, economic and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence and benefit its interest in the United States,” as he claimed. After recounting the full bilateral history from 1945 to today, he accused China of failing to meet the U.S.’ expectations in the way it’s developed, even though America supported it in its bid to join international institutions like the WTO.  The message of Pence’s speech was, as he stated, that “President Trump’s leadership is working, and China wants a different American president.”

Clearly, the speech was motivated by political considerations in the run up to the November mid-term elections and the 2020 presidential election. It is less politically costly to shift voters’ attention from Trump’s difficult domestic situation to the “China problem,” given the generally pessimistic American view of China in the current unfriendly environment of bilateral relations. The Trump administration’s push to call out China, including Trump’s recent speech at the UN General Assembly and Pence’s speech, comes amid the investigation for possible collusion with Russia to sway the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor. It also comes at a sensitive moment when Trump is involved in allegations of improper tax schemes.

Politicians have rarely shied away from pulling the “China card” in the run up to U.S. presidential elections, be it Republican or Democrat. Obama and Romney each used their second presidential debate to talk tough on China. Campaigning for the presidency in 1992, Clinton accused his incumbent rival Bush of coddling dictators in China. Bush instead said Clinton “made a mistake [in] calling China a strategic partner” and “sent bad signals” to Beijing about U.S. policy toward Taiwan. Pence has claimed that Russian interference in U.S. elections “pales in comparison” with Chinese meddling, which he said was aimed at ousting Donald Trump. Yet the Trump administration has yet to provide any supporting evidence, other than pointing to instances of overt lobbying. U.S. cybersecurity experts said China was more engaged in industrial espionage and intellectual property (IP) theft than in attacks on the U.S. electoral system.

While the upcoming elections are a clear motivation behind Pence’s speech, his message – that the U.S. will take a tougher policy toward China – should not be overlooked. In his first year in office, Donald Trump turned out to be anything but the proverbial “bull in the China shop.” Several indicators that the U.S.-China relationship may be heading in a positive direction, including Trump’s endeavor to build a personal relationship with President Xi Jinping, the Mar-a-Lago meeting, Trump’s ‘state visit plus,’ the cabinet-level Diplomatic and Security Dialogue and joint efforts on DPRK security makes the rapid deterioration in U.S.-China relations in the past few months all the more confusing to Chinese officials. Starting in December 2017, the trajectory of the bilateral relationship in the realms of politics and security has been negative. China was labelled a “revisionist power” and an “economic aggressor” in the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy reports. Areas of the relationship which were hitherto protected from controversy, such as visa policy and supposed Chinese ‘influence-operations’ and interference in U.S. domestic political processes, have risen to the fore as new areas of tension.

Pence’s accusations are hard to swallow, but not all aspects cross a red line. The debate on the South China Sea has been ongoing for decades and the spat on freedom of navigation operations will continue, but will be well managed. Current crisis-management mechanisms between the two countries — such as the memoranda of understanding (MOU) on “Notification of Major Military Activities” and “Rules of Behavior” — play a crucial role in dealing with emergencies and preventing the escalation of tensions arising from unplanned and unwanted incidents at sea or in the air. U.S.-China trade and investment relations have reached the worst point since the normalization of bilateral relations in the late-1970s. But the door for negotiation is not shut. The accusation of so called “debt diplomacy,” using the example of Sri Lanka and Venezuela, is tough, but China will defend itself by referring to the principle of non-intervention.

However, China deems some issues an absolute red line, one of which is Taiwan. In his speech, Pence mentioned the three Latin American nations who recently severed ties with Taipei to recognize the PRC and said these actions were “threatening the stability of the Taiwan Strait.” As he argued, “America will always believe Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people.” Trump’s Taiwan policy is very worrisome to China, particularly as it relates to his attempt to use Taiwan as leverage against China. He spoke to Ms. Tsai Ing-wen on the telephone on December 2, 2016, soon after winning the 2016 presidential election. This marked the first time since 1979 that a U.S. president or president-elect had directly spoken with a Republic of China president.

Since then, Trump’s administration has approved a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan. In February this year, the United States Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act which was signed into law by Trump on March 16, allowing high-level officials of the United States to visit Taiwan and vice versa. This bill gives the president political cover to significantly shift U.S. policy toward Taiwan in a manner that would deeply rile China. In June, the U.S. formally opened a new $255 million building housing the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto U.S. Embassy in the country, a move seen in both Washington and Taipei as a symbol of the U.S. commitment to Taiwan. John Bolton, the recently installed national security adviser, is one of the most pro-Taiwan figures in Washington. All of these developments signal that the U.S.’ policy on the Taiwan Strait is changing, despite Pence’s claim that the Trump administration “will continue to respect our One China Policy, as reflected in the three joint communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act.”

Pence’s speech amounted to the United States naming and shaming China, but with little discussion of how the U.S. plans to push back on Beijing in practice, despite Pence’s claim that the U.S. will “continu[e] to assert American interests across the Indo-Pacific.” Will this negative trajectory in bilateral relations continue into 2019 and 2020? In retrospect, will the National Security Strategy be viewed as the key turning point that presaged three years of tough Trump administration policy towards China? And will this conflict extend into other contested political areas, such as the “One China policy” or the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy?

On one hand, Pence’s tough speech serves to shift voters’ attention from Russia and Trump’s difficult domestic situation to the “China problem” ahead of the November mid-term elections, and on the other hand signals a far tougher American line on China, in line with the mainstream narrative of the China-U.S. relationship as a burgeoning rivalry.

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