5 Takeaways From Mike Pence’s Hawkish China Speech 

The vice president lays out a wide-ranging critique of China at a critical moment for trade talks. 

Vice President Mike Pence delivers a speech on U.S.-China relations.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks on the future of the U.S.-China relationship at the Wilson Center's inaugural Frederic V. Malek Public Service Leadership Lecture in Washington on Oct. 24. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

Vice President Mike Pence didn’t have too many kind words for China.

In a long-awaited speech Thursday on U.S. policy toward China, Pence delivered a wide-ranging critique of Beijing’s policies, both at home and abroad, accusing the country of growing increasingly “aggressive and destabilizing” in the year since Pence’s last major address on China.

Vice President Mike Pence didn’t have too many kind words for China.

In a long-awaited speech Thursday on U.S. policy toward China, Pence delivered a wide-ranging critique of Beijing’s policies, both at home and abroad, accusing the country of growing increasingly “aggressive and destabilizing” in the year since Pence’s last major address on China.

The U.S. relationship with China represents a key issue for the Trump administration with major implications for the global economy—testing the president’s proposition that trade wars are good for Americans—and Pence’s speech on Thursday provides a window into some of the major debates playing out within the administration.

Here are five key lines of attack from Pence’s speech:

1. Linking Hong Kong and trade talks

As the protest movement in Hong Kong gained momentum over the summer, the Trump administration maintained a studied silence on the issue, afraid that speaking up on behalf of pro-democracy protesters would upset relations with Beijing. But in the last two months, the White House has been testing a new strategy—trying to make the protest movement a factor in deadlocked trade talks.

Beginning in late August, President Donald Trump and his deputies said a violent crackdown on Hong Kong would make a trade deal less likely. Washington’s calculus appears to be that linking trade talks with Hong Kong may add another reason for Beijing to cut a deal while also raising the stakes for China to carry out additional acts of repression in Hong Kong.

On Thursday, Pence went slightly further than other administration officials in expressing his support for the protest movement, holding up Hong Kong as an example for what could be in store for the rest of China.

“Hong Kong is a living example of what can happen when China embraces liberty,” Pence said, before offering an unusual note of support for an official in an administration that has often been reluctant to embrace protest movements. “We are inspired by you,” he added. “Know that you have the prayers and the admiration of millions of Americans.”

2. China is becoming a great cudgel in the culture wars

Recent weeks have offered a series of stark examples of the degree to which Beijing has attempted to bully U.S. companies into adopting its preferred line of thinking. Now Pence is using that conflict as a weapon in the American culture war over free speech and political correctness.

This month, the NBA landed in Beijing’s crosshairs after a team executive tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protest movement. Many of the league’s leading lights, including LeBron James, an outspoken supporter of civil rights movements in the United States, criticized the executive, Daryl Morey, who was behind the tweet.

“Some of the NBA’s biggest players and owners, who routinely exercise their freedom to criticize this country, lose their voices when it comes to the freedom and rights of the people of China,” Pence said on Thursday. “In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime.”

With U.S. companies increasingly staking out liberal positions at odds with the Trump administration while also searching for a slice of the Chinese market, look for criticism on how those companies approach Beijing to be an increasing part of the ways that U.S. conservatives position themselves against firms such as Apple and Facebook.

3. Settling the great “decoupling” debate

Officials in Beijing do not view the U.S. trade war as a mere effort to secure marginal reforms on Chinese economic policy but as a way to decouple the country from the United States and to increasingly isolate it.

That fear isn’t exactly misplaced. Some of Trump’s most hawkish advisors want to achieve exactly such a goal, and on Thursday Pence tried to calm some of those fears.

“People sometimes ask whether the Trump administration seeks to ‘decouple’ from China,” Pence said on Thursday. “The answer is a resounding ‘no.’”

Rather than isolate Beijing, Pence said the United States seeks “engagement with China and China’s engagement with the wider world but engagement in a manner consistent with fairness, mutual respect, and the international rules of commerce.”

4. Emphasizing the intellectual property theft debate

Among the key reforms that American negotiators are seeking in their talks with Beijing over its economic policies is a halt to intellectual property theft. And according to Pence, such theft hasn’t really stopped, despite a pledge by China to do so.

Pence was referring to a pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping to halt intellectual property theft through hacking, a promise that security companies say China has mostly kept. But on Thursday, Pence claimed that “American enterprises continue to lose hundreds of billions of dollars each year in intellectual property theft.”

Beijing now appears to be doing less hacking to steal corporate secrets and instead using a mix of old-school and digital tricks, such as recruiting spies inside companies and targeting for acquisitions companies whose technology it is interested in. But it isn’t clear that such theft is happening on the scale described by Pence, nor is it clear that Beijing is actually in violation of the agreement it signed in 2015.

5. The political meddling bugaboo

When Pence delivered his last major address on China, he raised eyebrows by accusing Beijing of “meddling in America’s democracy” and attempting to oust Trump, a claim that appeared to equate Chinese propaganda efforts with Russia’s more direct interference in U.S. politics. Analysts criticized that argument as misconstruing the threat posed by China.

A year later, the question of Chinese interference in U.S. politics has taken on a new significance in Washington after Trump asked Beijing to investigate the business activities of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden.

So on Thursday, Pence refrained from taking up the issue directly and instead slipped in a defensive jibe on the issue: “Beijing’s economic and strategic actions, its attempts to shape American public opinion, prove out what I said a year ago, and it’s just as true today: China wants a different American president.”

 Twitter: @EliasGroll