US Vice-President Mike Pence addressing the Hudson Institute on the administration's policy towards China. Photo: AFP/Jim Watson
US Vice-President Mike Pence addressing the Hudson Institute on the administration's policy towards China. Photo: AFP/Jim Watson

Events of the past year have left no doubt that the relationship between Washington and Beijing has fundamentally changed for the worse. Words from the Trump administration on Thursday confirmed that there is plenty of room for it to deteriorate even more before it gets better.

“A new consensus on China is rising across America,” US Vice-President Mike Pence told an audience in Washington, warning Beijing in fighting terms that “this president will not back down.”

The wide-ranging speech called out China for criticisms long-levied against Beijing, including back peddling on reforms and representing a malign influence in global politics. But Pence also denounced the Chinese government on a new front that related to US President Donald Trump himself: election meddling.

“China has initiated an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 elections and the environment leading into the 2020 presidential elections.”

Beijing, he said, “is pursuing a comprehensive and coordinated campaign to undermine support for the president, our agenda, and our most cherished ideals.”

“President Trump’s leadership is working,” Pence said, “and China wants a different American president.”

The accusation that China’s leaders are proactively trying to undermine the current US administration in domestic politics has come to the fore only recently. Trump highlighted the charge during a press conference last week, during which he said that evidence would be presented in support of the claim.

So far, the allegation appears to be based primarily on the fact that retaliatory tariffs placed on US goods by China have overwhelmingly targeted counties that voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

The notion that Beijing is specifically targeting Trump, which served as an exclamation point at the end of Pence’s laundry list of grievances, raises the question of whether the US president will abandon his insistence on maintaining the public image of a warm relationship with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. The US president acknowledged this possibility last week, saying “maybe he’s not anymore,” when asked whether they were still friends.

That could have implications for other areas of contention between the world’s two largest powers, analysts say, whether it be trade, the balance of military power in the Pacific, or the future of Taiwan. Trump has consistently stressed the importance that personal relationships of heads of state play in bilateral negotiations. From the first time he met with Xi until now, he had not previously wavered in his confidence that they are good friends.

“Until recently, when people used the phrase ‘a new cold war’ when talking about the United States and China, I always said ‘you’re exaggerating,’” Richard Haas, president of New York-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations said in a television interview following Pence’s speech.

“And for the first time […] I think that language now is not that far from reality,” Haas lamented.

The Trump administration initially focused just on trade, “but now it’s broadening, and it almost seems as if the administration wants to have something of a cold war with China.”

“The Chinese are beginning to think that we are not looking for a solution here, that we want to fundamentally damage them, and what’s adding to that are recent actions: the Pence speech today […] the fact that we sanctioned China over buying arms from Russia […] they’re beginning to think that we’re actually looking […] to basically broaden the fight.”

The shift in the relationship was on display at the Chinese embassy in Washington earlier this week at an event commemorating China’s National Day holiday. Senior Trump aide Matt Pottinger stressed to Chinese diplomats that the administration has updated its China policy “to bring the concept of competition to the forefront.”

“It’s right there at the top of the president’s national security strategy,” Pottinger reminded the audience.

Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai responded to the sentiment in a radio interview following the event that he thinks the complicated relationship naturally involves an element of competition. But, he added: “Just because we have differences, the need for cooperation is even bigger.”

Those differences are multiplying and they have become more severe, Pence suggested in his speech, pledging that the Trump administration would maintain its naval presence in the South China Sea and call out China for alleged theft of intellectual property, repression of religious freedoms, as well as pressure tactics used to erode international support for Taiwan’s government.

“America will always believe that Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people,” Pence said to loud applause from the audience at the Hudson Institute think tank, the resident China scholar of which was highlighted last week by president Trump as being America’s foremost expert on the country.

Accounts have shown that Chinese leaders were caught off guard by the Trump administration’s unclear and at times inconsistent demands in trade negotiations. If there is a similar lack of clarity when it comes to issues such as the nature of Washington’s support for Taiwan, or operations in the South China Sea, some experts have warned, the term “cold war” – far from being exaggerated – may not go far enough.

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