The Trump administration struck a hard line on China Thursday, with Vice President Mike Pence alleging that Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections “pales in comparison” to China’s ongoing actions.
The vice president accused the Chinese government of “employing a whole-of-government approach to advance its influence and benefit its interests.” He cited the conclusions of career U.S. intelligence officials as he said China is “employing this power in more proactive and coercive ways to interfere in the domestic policies and politics of the United States.”
“To put it bluntly, President Trump’s leadership is working,” Pence said during a speech at the conservative Hudson Institute think tank in Washington. “China wants a different American President.”
The package of meddling allegations — “all of which is fact,” he said — come as U.S.-China relations continue to plunge. President Donald Trump often boasts about his warm and friendly relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping; but that alleged friendship has yet to produce fruit for the United States. Along with the trade flap, administration officials also are frustrated by what they contend are too-aggressive Chinese military actions in the region.
But Pence’s speech contradicts one earlier in the week from Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of Homeland Security, who said she saw no direct attempts by China to interfere in U.S. elections but did see evidence that China was trying through propaganda and other efforts to shape U.S. public opinion of Beijing.
The vice president’s tough talk comes as lawmakers from both parties have called on the administration to clamp down on Chinese trade and military actions — while also warming relations from an increasingly icy state.
“For decades, U.S. policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the postwar international world order would liberalize China,” Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said last month. “Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others.”
Pence criticized the Chinese navy over one of his ships provocatively coming too close to a U.S. Navy vessel, for instance. He used the incident to deliver a warning.
“Despite such reckless harassment, the United States Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand. We will not be intimidated; we will not stand down,” he said.
But with the congressional elections just weeks away, the alleged election meddling was the most imminent portion of Pence’s get-tough message.
He accused Chinese Communist Party officials with “rewarding or coercing American businesses, movie studios, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists, and local, state, and federal officials.”
But Pence alleged that Beijing is looking beyond November’s elections, saying they are seeking to convince voters to kick Trump out of office.
“Worst of all, China has initiated an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 elections, and the environment leading into the 2020 presidential elections,” he said. “China is meddling in America’s democracy.”
The vice president was dispatched to deliver the get-tough message a week after Trump accused China of meddling in the midterm elections, aiming to help Democratic candidates and punish him for pushing Beijing to alter its trade practices. (It also came on the same day that federal authorities charged seven Russian military intelligence officials for a wide range of cyberattacks, including breaking into the computers of anti-doping agencies around the world, attempts to break into chemical weapons testing labs and a U.S. nuclear power plant.)
“They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade,” he said Sept. 26 during remarks at a United Nations Security Council meeting in New York.
But, behind the scenes, the president and his top aides are increasingly frustrated by Chinese officials. In round after round of talks, U.S. officials describe what they call “unfair” trade tactics like limiting access to Chinese markets and manipulating their currency to the detriment of American companies and consumers.
American farmers and other agriculture-based industries have been hit hard by Trump’s tariffs and China’s retaliatory ones, which were tailored to be felt most in congressional districts and states that that broke for Trump in the 2016 election and depend on agriculture and other niche industries.
“I don’t know when China will commit” to the changes the Trump administration is demanding, he said. “I hope it will be soon.”
Patrick B. Pexton contributed to this report.