Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday accused China of mobilizing “covert actors,” “front groups,” and “propaganda outlets” in the United States in a bid to interfere with the November midterm elections and 2020 presidential elections.
Speaking before the conservative Hudson Institute think tank, Pence accused the the Chinese Communist Party of “awarding and coercing” U.S. movie studios, academics, journalists, and even government officials as part of “an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion” that “pales in comparison” to Russia’s efforts (in the 2016 elections) in the lead up to the 2018 congressional elections and the next presidential elections.
“To put it bluntly, President Trump’s leadership is working; China wants a different American President,” he added.
Pence also accused China of “reckless harassment” in its heightened military presence in the South China Sea, saying that while Beijing in trying to project its power beyond previous limits, the United States “will not be intimidated” and “will not stand down.”
As with Iran, the Trump administration is now starting to notice the lack of freedom in China, with Vice President Pence lamenting crackdowns on religious groups in the country.
The Vice President’s speech, which also cast China as a major economic threat, follows a remarkable moment at the U.N. Security Council meeting on Sept. 26 when President Donald Trump accused China of trying to interfere in the November midterm elections specifically in order to make the Republicans lose and to ultimately oust him from the White House.
The president has engaged China in a massive trade war, resulting in hundreds of billions worth of tariffs being slapped by each country on the other’s exports.
That comment did not go over well with the Chinese envoy present at the meeting. When it was his turn to speak, Foreign Minister Wang Yi firmly rejected President Trump’s claim. “We do not and will not interfere in any countries’ domestic affairs. We refuse to accept any unwarranted accusations against China,” he said.
Oriana Skylar Mastro, assistant professor of Security Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University told ThinkProgress that the approach outlined in the vice president’s speech is “problematic” for a number of reasons.
“Some of the things that the vice president, and indeed, the president, are saying about Chinese behavior are true, and some are an exaggeration, kind of conspiracy-theoryesque,” said Mastro.
“I think what that does is reduces the strength of our message on things that are of actually very critical relevance and things that China is actually doing,” she said, citing the recent Chinese military action in the South China Sea, which has largely been ignored by the Trump administration.
But there’s a “great deal of uncertainty” when it comes to what China might try to influence in the upcoming American elections. Creating an overall image of China as a nefarious actor and a threat on all fronts, said Mastro, gives the Chinese the impression that “there’s nothing that they can do for a positive relationship with the United States, so why even try?”
While Chinese and U.S. interests conflict in parts, it’s not in the U.S.’s best interests to create a “Cold-War ideological battle,” said Mastro.
Vice President Pence said that China’s interest in influencing U.S. elections is direct in response to President Donald Trump’s “decisive” actions on U.S. policies in China, but the president’s tactics don’t seem so decisive from the Chinese perspective.
On Wednesday, China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, told NPR that the Trump administration keeps changing its position on trade, which makes it very hard for China to negotiate.
He said what was needed was “more good faith” and that he’d like to have “a better understanding” of President Trump. Tiankai said he has been reading a copy of Bob Woodward’s “Fear,” and that he has spoken to other ambassadors who also want “a better understanding of what is happening” in the Trump administration.
Indeed, Mastro said, China has always had difficulty understanding the U.S. political system (for instance, why the president doesn’t have absolute powers) and that President Trump’s Twitter missives have, at times, added an extra layer to that confusion.
Chinese understanding of the U.S. right now is that “Trump is an anomaly” and that his administration can be “waited out.” But, she added, independent of the Trump presidency, there has been a shift in how China is viewed.
“I think China kind of misunderstands that there has been a shift in the United States, and it’s not just about Trump…the shift is, now we all agree that [China] is largely competitive,” said Mastro.
Even as China is not quite grasping the change in how it is being viewed in the U.S., what’s clear is that Trump administration’s tariff/sanctions strategies will not make the U.S. “competitive on the global stage” with China, as it is failing to offer alternatives to countries dealing with China in places like Central Asia.