Vice President Mike Pence sharply criticized Chinese interference in U.S. politics and increasing military aggression Thursday, leveling up a blistering rhetorical assault at a moment when Washington and Beijing are hardening the battle lines after months tension over tariffs and trade.
The U.S. “will not be intimidated” and “will not stand down,” Mr. Pence told a conservative think tank in Washington, expanding on President Trump’s recent charges of Chinese meddling by insisting that Beijing “is targeting U.S. state and local governments and officials to exploit any divisions between federal and local levels on policy.”
“Beijing has mobilized covert actors, front groups and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perceptions of Chinese policies,” said the vice president, citing “a senior career member of our intelligence community.” “What the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country.”
Mr. Trump raised the issue at the U.N. General Assembly in New York a week ago, accusing Beijing of attempting to subvert the U.S. election process to hurt him and fellow Republicans in the upcoming midterms. Chinese officials firmly deny the allegation.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry last week accused the Trump administration of engaging in “slandering” through “unwarranted accusations” of U.S. election meddling.
China Daily, a key newspaper of the ruling Communist Party in Beijing, ran an editorial this weekend arguing that “as always, when [Mr. Trump] makes accusations, evidence is missing.”
“U.S. intelligence and election officials have unequivocally said they have no credible evidence that China is interfering in the midterm elections,” said the editorial, accusing Mr. Trump of simply bashing China “to garner votes in the midterms.”
Mr. Pence stopped short of saying American spy agencies have concluded that China is meddling in the elections but asserted that intelligence officials told him directly about active Chinese efforts to sabotage the U.S. political debate.
“In June, Beijing circulated a sensitive document, entitled ‘Propaganda and Censorship Notice,’ that laid out its strategy,” Mr. Pence said. “It states that China must ‘strike accurately and carefully, splitting apart different domestic groups’ in the United States.”
Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence have charged that China’s retaliatory moves against the U.S. have targeted Mr. Trump’s political base and states critical to the midterms, although the European Union pursued a similar targeted strategy to protest American tariffs directed at the bloc earlier this year.
“By one estimate, more than 80 percent of U.S. counties targeted by China voted for President Trump in 2016,” Mr. Pence said. “China wants to turn these voters against our administration.”
The U.S. and China have been on a collision course on another front, with the Trump administration claiming Beijing is engaged in increasingly aggressive military behavior, particularly in the disputed South China Sea. Chinese aggression, Mr. Pence said, was on display this week when a Chinese naval vessel sailed dangerously close to a U.S. guided missile destroyer in the tense waters that Beijing considers part of its sovereign territory.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has blamed the incident on provocative operations by U.S. forces in the region. An editorial published Thursday by Global Times — another Communist Party newspaper known for publicizing Beijing’s policy positions — warned that “Washington must exercise restraint, or China’s countermeasures will accelerate.”
In addition to a string of “freedom of navigation” missions by the U.S. Navy in the disputed waters, CNN reported this week that the Navy is considering a major show of force against the Chinese military in November with American combat air and troop exercises across Asia. A high-level U.S. military source told The Washington Times on Thursday that the leaked proposal is “totally tentative.”
The CNN report said the exercises would assert the right of free passage in international waters, most notably in the Taiwan Straight and the oil- and gas-rich South China Sea. China has been building up and militarizing artificial islands in the sea to bolster its sovereignty claims.
With many countries in the region claiming at least part of the sea’s waterways, the U.S. has long rejected Beijing’s claim to some 90 percent of the South China Sea. China has warned about an escalation if U.S. forces interfere with Chinese claims there.
“It’s highly likely that the U.S. will intensify its provocation against China,” the Global Times editorial said. “No matter how the U.S. is reportedly exerting more pressure on China, China will not be flustered.”
Although Mr. Trump has secured an updated accord with Mexico and Canada, trade talks with China have become mired since the administration imposed hundreds of billions of dollars in tariffs on an array of Chinese exports, including lobster, soybeans and steel products. Beijing has responded by targeting U.S. goods headed to China with stiff tariffs of its own.
Mr. Pence said the administration’s hard line on trade had a long-term goal of reducing the $375 billion annual U.S. trade deficit to China that Mr. Trump claims unfairly benefits Beijing in the global economy. The vice president repeated charges that China is stealing U.S. intellectual property in a bid to challenge U.S. high-tech dominance in the global market.
“To win the commanding heights of the 21st-century economy, Beijing has directed its bureaucrats and businesses to obtain American intellectual property — the foundation of our economic leadership — by any means necessary,” Mr. Pence said. If China is unwilling to embrace a “fair and reciprocal deal” on bilateral trade, Mr. Pence warned, the administration will “levy even more tariffs.”
“America had hoped that economic liberalization would bring China into greater partnership with us and with the world. Instead, China has chosen economic aggression, which has in turn emboldened its growing military,” the vice president said.
He suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping has lied about China’s military ambitions.
“China’s leader stood in the Rose Garden of the White House in 2015 and said that his country had ‘no intention to militarize the South China Sea,’” said Mr. Pence. “Today, Beijing has deployed advanced anti-ship and anti-air missiles atop an archipelago of military bases constructed on artificial islands.”
He pointed to an incident this week in which when a Chinese naval vessel came within 45 yards of the USS Decatur as it sailed through the South China Sea, forcing the Decatur to quickly maneuver to avoid a collision.
“Despite such reckless harassment, the United States Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand,” said Mr. Pence. “We will not be intimidated. We will not stand down.”