Who was Mike Pence really addressing in his speech on China?

U.S. and Chinese flags are placed for a joint news conference by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China June 14, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee - RC1A372B6000

It has been axiomatic for anyone involved in drafting public remarks for senior American officials on China that messages must be crafted to reach three audiences: domestic, regional countries and global partners, and Chinese. The weight given to different themes depends on the audience the American official is most focused on influencing.

In the case of Vice President Mike Pence’s October 4, 2018 speech, the key audience was a domestic American one, and the clear objectives were to lay the basis for an adversarial posture toward China and to justify President Trump’s accusation that China is interfering in America’s electoral process.

With this framework in mind, here are a few key takeaways for each of the three audiences:

Domestic: Pence sought to harden Americans’ perceptions of China by listing point-by-point many instances of Chinese efforts to influence American public discourse. He also sent a stark warning to American companies, urging them not to abet Beijing’s oppression. On the subject of election meddling, the vice president attempted to shift public scrutiny from Russia to China. Pence asserted that Russian efforts to interfere in America’s electoral process “pales in comparison to what China is doing.”

The vice president vowed that Trump will not back down in challenging China, and that the American people will not be swayed by Chinese efforts to encourage the United States to soften its approach. Since the administration has little to show thus far for how its escalatory instincts on China will deliver material benefits for the American people, the vice president chose instead to highlight how U.S.-China tensions are hurting China, including by leading to a 25 percent fall in the value of the Shanghai stock exchange.

While there appears to be support among President Trump’s base for a tougher approach toward China, it remains an open question whether the American public will come to support a policy of unvarnished rivalry. Public polling of American attitudes toward China over a long period of time has not revealed  enthusiasm for such an approach. 

Regional countries and global partners: While Pence’s speech was mostly framed around geostrategic competition between the United States and China, he also sought to rally international support behind American efforts to confront China. He drew an implicit comparison to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan by warning about the historic pattern of countries that pair oppression at home with ambition abroad. He accused China of using “debt-trap diplomacy” to expand its influence. The overriding message was that the United States is strong and determined, China is a significant threat, and countries should position themselves with the United States. In doing so, the Trump administration risks embarking on a Cold War-like approach toward China, but without the clear backing of any ally anywhere in the world for joining the United States in a purely confrontational posture toward China.

Chinese: Although the speech contained rhetorical signals of reassurance about America’s interest in developing healthy relations with China, I suspect many in Beijing instead will view the speech through a dark lens. To them, the speech likely will be viewed as validation of the Trump administration’s determination to stifle China’s rise and put stress on its governance system. In invoking the concept of a “free China,” lifting up Taiwan as a political model for the mainland, attempting to drive a wedge between Chinese people’s dreams for freedom and the Communist Party’s pursuit of control and oppression, and asserting that China merely “pays lip service to reform and opening,” Pence’s remarks will be read as daggers pointed at the heart of China’s sociopolitical stability.

No off-ramp in sight

Overall, the vice president deserves credit for clearly calling out unacceptable Chinese behavior, such as its unfair trade practices, its assertiveness in the maritime domain, and its trampling of Chinese citizens’ basic human rights. But, the message would have been stronger if he had stuck to the facts, instead of playing fast and loose with them, such as in his revisionism on America’s role in China’s “century of humiliation” or the claim that the United States “rebuilt China over the past 25 years.”   

More broadly, the vice president’s speech was not a search for off-ramps or for lowering tensions, but rather a message of America’s determination to elevate pressure until Beijing accepts the bilateral relationship, as Washington envisions it. It also signaled that the White House does not believe a de-escalation on trade is achievable or desirable in the near term. If it did, Vice President Pence would not have injected a depth charge into the relationship now, just weeks prior to an expected meeting between President Trump and President Xi on the margins of the G-20 meeting.

Washington clearly wanted to convey that it is comfortable with elevated bilateral tensions, and if Beijing is not, then the ball is in China’s court to come up with fixes to existing problems. For reasons cited above, Beijing is unlikely to do so. Beijing likely will interpret Pence’s speech as validation that the Trump administration seeks to keep China down, and that concessions and compromise only would invite additional American pressure.

If U.S.-China relations felt sporty before, they likely will feel even more so in the weeks and months to come.