BEIJING—Vice President Mike Pence’s accusations in a stinging speech last Thursday warning of a tougher approach toward Beijing may have been familiar to China’s leaders. But until now such remarks were delivered in private, in fairly decorous terms, and rarely threatened direct action.
The surprise this time for Beijing was the magnitude of alleged offenses piled up in one public indictment, ranging from suspected interference in US politics to China’s stomping on the freedoms of its own people. Nor had the United States ever before told China: “We will not stand down.”
Publicly, China responded with a certain weariness, calling the speech “very ridiculous,” creating “something out of thin air,” but also warning that “no one can stop” the Chinese people from advancing.
Behind closed doors, however, Pence’s remarks probably left few doubts among China’s leaders that Washington was embarking on a Cold War that would force the country to dig in for a prolonged multifront battle with the United States, analysts said.
The leaders were no doubt angry and embarrassed that the Trump administration went all-out publicly with confrontational language that is considered unacceptable in Chinese culture, which prefers sweet phrases to disguise stern measures.
Some of Pence’s declarations, like saying Washington’s trade policy most likely caused a 25-percent fall in China’s largest stock exchange in the first nine months of this year, could be dismissed as inaccurate, since trade tensions were one of several factors. Similarly, the claim that the United States “rebuilt China” over the last 25 years could be shrugged off as dubious and unfair.
But it was unmistakably clear that the era of Washington holding out a hand to Beijing to become a “responsible stakeholder” in world affairs alongside the United States—a phrase used in 2005 by Robert B. Zoellick, then the deputy secretary of state—was over.
“This will look like the declaration of a new Cold War, and what China may do is more important than what it will say about Pence’s speech,” said Zhang Baohui, professor of international relations at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
China could respond by funneling more money toward its armed forces, which Pence said spend as much as all other militaries in Asia combined. (The International Institute for Strategic Studies said last year that Asian countries combined spent about 25 percent more than China on their militaries, and that the United States spent four times what China did on its armed forces.)
The vice president also singled out a near collision last Sunday in the South China Sea, where a Chinese warship cut off a US destroyer, missing it by less than 45 yards.
China has kept its military budget at 1.5 percent of its economic output over the last few years. “It has a long way to go to reach the US level of 3.5 to 4 percent,” Zhang said.
China could also reverse course on its support of the US-led effort in the United Nations that has imposed heavy sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, signaled last month that he would not buckle to Washington’s trade demands when he visited vast grain-growing areas of northeast China, stressing the need for China to be self-reliant, a policy harking back to the Cold War era of Mao Zedong 50 years ago.
Chinese policymakers, following Xi’s strictures, are unlikely to give ground, said Yun Sun, a policy expert at the Stimson Center in Washington who is currently visiting China.
“My comments to the Chinese are that maybe China should tone down its assertiveness to avoid further tension,” Sun said of her discussions with Chinese officials. “And the reaction I get is that ‘We don’t think we are being assertive.’”
President Donald Trump said last week that the friendship with Xi that he once was so proud of may now be over. The feeling was most likely reciprocated in the aftermath of the speech, Sun said. “I don’t think Xi still sees Trump as his friend.”
China’s social-media platforms, which the government rigorously censors, eliminating provocative content, bristled in shock at the severity of Pence’s speech.
“Pence’s speech is really earth-shattering,” said one commenter. “This is the official speech of the US. I suggest every Chinese person read the whole thing. Is this another edition of the ‘Iron Curtain’ speech?”
Pence’s speech was clearly directed at a domestic audience. He gave it at the Hudson Institute, a conservative research group, and its timing—11 p.m. in China—meant it probably had limited viewership in China, mostly among international affairs specialists. And it was given in the midst of a weeklong holiday in China, when the government’s most strident megaphone for foreign policy, the state-run newspaper Global Times is not publishing.
Still, the unfavorable comparison with accusations of Russian interference in US politics probably alarmed Chinese officials, said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former member of the National Security Council in the Obama administration.
“The vice president attempted to shift public scrutiny from Russia to China,” Hass said. “He asserted that Russian efforts to interfere in America’s electoral process ‘pales in comparison to what China is doing.’”
But the address could reassure two nations that fear China—Japan, an important US ally, and India, a country that Washington is trying to bring closer—regional analysts said. And the tougher approach reflects a growing wariness of China among US businesses.
“This has been building for a long time across different sectors in the US—the military and business in particular,” said Bilahari Kausikan, a former foreign secretary for Singapore. “American business is particularly significant as it had been the stabilizing fact. But their mood has been souring for a decade or more. How the Chinese missed this, I do not know.”
In Australia, another important US ally, the government has been saying many of the same things as Pence, though in more muted tones.
In some ways, Australia has been viewed in Washington as a test case of what China could get away with in a country with a strong economy and Western values. The US and Australian intelligence agencies have consulted on what they see as the China threat.
Allegations of Chinese meddling in Australian universities and donations to political campaigns by ethnic Chinese businessmen connected to the government in Beijing have prompted recent legislation aimed at curbing foreign interference in Australia’s domestic affairs.
But the Australians have couched their new legislation in general terms, never singling out China.
Pence’s harder line is likely to ignite a debate in Australia about whether it too should take a harder line against China.
“Let’s take the heat, light, noise and excitement out of the relationship by establishing a clear, declared policy that governs our approach to the economic and strategic relationship with the Chinese state,” said Michael Shoebridge, director of defense at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Australia should follow in Pence’s footsteps, he said.
But there were concerns about pushing too far.
“I think Australia is broadly comfortable with the Pence approach,” said Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. “There is just a worry about it getting out of control.”
Image credits: Doug Mills/The New York Times