WHILE major developments like Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the US Supreme Court and a new North American trade pact dominated the American news last week, several significant officials spoke publicly at the same time to offer their informed views on the globally significant issue of the evolving US-China relationship. The Trump administration helped to focus further attention on China when Vice President Pence delivered a major address on the subject to the conservative Hudson Institute.
Overall, politicians of both American political parties offered somewhat similar, and harsh, views of China and its conduct of foreign policy. The prognosis clearly deteriorated for the world’s key bilateral relationship, at least for the short and intermediate term.
Pence has led the way in meticulously obsequious obeisance to Trump and his policies since even before Trump picked him as a running mate in 2016. His delivery of a major foreign policy speech on China has thus been universally regarded as a significant administration proclamation. And Pence used unusually tough and specific language.
“Beijing now requires many American businesses to hand over their trade secrets as the cost of doing business in China,” Pence said. “China also coordinates and sponsors the acquisition of American firms to gain ownership of their creations. Worst of all, Chinese security agencies have masterminded the wholesale theft of American technology, including cutting edge military blueprints.”
None of this is altogether new. But taken together with Trump’s recent, apparently unsubstantiated charges of Chinese interference in the upcoming US congressional elections, the Pence remarks signal a toughening US stance toward China, as well as a clear escalation of the mutual discomfort and discord spawned by Trump’s imposition of import tariffs on several categories of Chinese goods such as steel and aluminium.
China’s ambassador to the U.S. was quick to respond to Pence. “The U.S. position keeps changing all the time,” he said, “so we don’t know exactly what the U.S. would want as priorities.”
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said “the international community sees very clearly, in fact, which country invades the sovereignty of other countries.” There was no doubt he was referring to the United States.
Adding a menacing counterpoint to this exchange was a military incident, also last week, involving US and Chinese warships in disputed international waters in the South China Sea.
Five-term Democratic senator, 2004 presidential candidate and Secretary of State John Kerry added his voice to the growing discourse at a private event hosted by Georgetown University in Washington DC. Although Kerry has publicly feuded with the Trump administration on several foreign policy issues such as the Iran nuclear deal, he agreed with Pence and said “China needs to open its markets to international competition and definitely needs to be less technologically predatory.”
But Kerry also said the U.S. needs to recognize and take account of “China’s fears that the Americans are trying to contain and surround them. We should never overlook their discomfort over ballistic missile systems we maintain in Japan and Korea, for instance.”
While prickly issues like trade imbalances, North Korea, Taiwan and the South China Sea continue to roil US-China relations, Kerry said, there is common ground in other areas including on the environment.
A forum at the non-partisan, congressionally funded US Institute for Peace showcased veteran congressmen Chris Stewart, a Republican of Utah, and Dutch Ruppersberger, Democrat of Maryland. Both have influential positions on foreign affairs budgets and have served on the House select committee on intelligence. They are establishment congressmen. And they also echoed the growing stridency on relations with China.
Ruppersberger recalled the Chinese Communist Party’s ambition to preside over the world’s most powerful state within 30 years. He said the Chinese had cumulatively stolen billions of dollars in intellectual property from the US, in areas ranging from cyber security to fertilizer research. Stewart asked rhetorically if rising and established powers could really coexist.
The congressmen also both criticized what they described as China’s indifference to civil liberties domestically and controversial lending policies overseas. “China will always do what is in its leadership’s best interests,” Stewart said.
It’s not inevitable that those interests will conflict with those of the Americans, but matters did not improve last week.