Mike Pence’s tirade against China went way beyond trade

A fight growing nastier by the minute.
A fight growing nastier by the minute.
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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The Trump administration wants the world to know its beef with China is about a lot more than trade.

On Thursday, vice president Mike Pence went over a long list of Chinese offenses and affronts—including meddling with US elections and public opinion—during a speech at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington D.C.

“As we speak, Beijing is employing a whole-of-government approach, using political, economic, and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States,” he said.

His remarks dial the already nasty tone of the US’s trade war with China up several notches. They also signal, at least rhetorically, that the Trump administration is prepared to take that fight into other realms.

Throughout the speech, the vice president raised alarm over China’s influence over a broad range of sectors, from the military to developing economies to academia. He accused Chinese authorities of spying on Chinese students in the US, and punishing them when they espoused views against them, and of manipulating scholarship through funding. 

Pence accused China of attempting to influence the US midterms vote though a variety of tactics, including by running ads in local media. He also decried the targeted use of  tariffs to punish key geographical areas. (He did not mention that US trading partners, including Mexico and the European Union, have used the same strategy.)

“Beijing has mobilized covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policies,” he said. “What the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country,” he added, referring to Russian state-sponsored hacking and online influence campaigns.

Many of Pence’s other complaints—including China’s militarization in the South China Sea, religious persecution, and digital censorship—are long-standing American concerns. He said the Trump administration is prepared to take a tougher stance on them than previous administrations, pointing to the trade tariffs his administration has already imposed and increased military spending. 

“This president will not back down—and the American people will not be swayed,” he said. Despite the bluster, however, he left some room for the possibility that the US and China could make up. ”We will continue to stand strong for our security and our economy, even as we hope for improved relations with Beijing,” he added.