Last week at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered the Trump administration’s first major policy speech on China. The speech was highly anticipated in both the United States and China because of its significance and the context in which it was delivered. Indeed, the Trump administration, since it took over in January 2017, has been criticized (rightly) for lacking a coherent China policy or even any China policy.
The once relatively smooth relationship between the two powers in 2017 suddenly turned into an ugly trade conflict in 2018, and, for the foreseeable future, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. In recent months, the United States has also stepped up its pressure on China in all realms including cybersecurity, human rights, and the South China Sea, thus rendering the U.S.-China relationship the most vulnerable it has been in recent decades.
Then came Pence’s big speech on China. This was supposed to be the defining approach to China for the Trump administration, and it was perhaps overdue. Pence’s speech can be divided into three parts, with the first part summarizing the long history of U.S.-China relations and emphasizing U.S. contributions to China’s rise; the second part detailing how China has seemingly betrayed the United States’ benign intentions and actions by actively hurting U.S. national interests in fields like economics, security, and even political interference; and the final part outlining a new U.S. approach to China, which prioritizes competition instead of cooperation. For those of us who regularly follow U.S.-China relations, nothing in Pence’s speech is surprising. At times, the speech felt like a good literature review done by a graduate student, with lots of stories that can also be found in major newspapers. Even the new allegation that China was trying to influence U.S. domestic politics was not much more than a few sweeping claims without much substantive proof, a point that actually is supported by the U.S. secretary of homeland security.