BEIJING – In Washington, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s Oct. 4 speech ripping China was largely lost amid the uproar over the midterms and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
In Beijing, however, Pence’s address is still reverberating. Some in China’s foreign policy community continue to study it, comparing the rhetoric with Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946, and trying to determine whether it, too, marks the start of a Cold War between two world powers.
Wang Wen, executive dean of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, was among those alarmed by how the vice president conflated trade grievances with spying allegations and long-standing security disputes such as Taiwan.
“We are at a very serious tipping point,” Wang said.
In his remarks to the Hudson Institute in Washington, Pence accused China of waging a “whole-of-government” campaign to erode American industrial advantages and steer voters away from the Republican Party in the midterms. He accused Beijing of attempting to push the U.S. military from the Western Pacific and buy off Latin American countries with “debt diplomacy.”
Viewed through the prism of the U.S. election, the speech served to deflect Democratic criticism of President Donald Trump’s tariffs and response to allegations of Russian meddling. In China, however, it helped confirm fears that the two sides are heading toward a prolonged struggle, with the U.S. using its economic and military might to contain its rival’s rise.
“The Pence speech was very much for a domestic audience,” said Dennis Wilder, a former senior director for Asia at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. Still, there was a message for Beijing, Wilder said: “It’s time to put China on notice that the U.S. is ready to compete with China in lots of different spheres.”
The episode illustrates how suspicions between Washington and Beijing are rising as the trade war drags on and communications grow more tense. The risk is that leaders on each side decide that settling their economic disputes could weaken them in an inevitable geopolitical tussle.
The speech could also complicate near-term efforts to get trade talks back on track, since Trump has decided to skip regional summits in Singapore and Papua New Guinea next month. His chosen emissary — Pence — will likely receive a frosty reception from President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese officials.
One White House official said the speech was primarily intended for domestic consumption, but also an opportunity to lay the groundwork for Pence’s Asia trip. The president and vice president went over the speech line by line, said the official, who asked not to be named discussing internal deliberations.
China expressed its displeasure during Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s visit to Beijing four days after Pence’s speech. Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Pompeo in an unusually blunt lecture that the U.S. had “damaged our mutual trust.” Xi declined to meet with the visiting secretary of state, as he had done during a similar trip in June.
In the days since, Chinese state media have churned out almost daily commentaries denouncing Pence’s claims as “illogical and absurd.” “The recent string of relentless and groundless China-bashing rhetoric from U.S. leaders has revealed a Washington bent on dragging Beijing into a full-scale face-off,” the official Xinhua News Agency said Oct. 12.
Subsequent events have only reinforced the Cold War narrative in Beijing. Last week, Trump vowed to outspend China in a nuclear arms buildup and the U.S. Navy sailed two warships through the Taiwan Strait, in a show of military support for the democratically run island.
Gen. Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister, warned that challenging the party on Taiwan was “extremely dangerous” Thursday in a speech that also hit back at Pence.
“A hegemonic and confrontational security model is outdated,” Wei said. “The world shouldn’t repeat the Cold War.”
That’s why some Foreign Ministry officials and advisers have dusted off copies of Churchill’s speech in Fulton, Missouri, in which the then-U.K. opposition leader urged Western democracies to stand up to communist expansion in Europe. Some historians, including those in China, see it as a crystallizing moment in the decades-long struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Still, Chinese officials have found solace in the differences. Pence, for instance, largely listed U.S. complaints and offered no grand strategy for countering China.
“The quality of the language of Pence’s speech is much lower,” said Wang Wen, of the Chongyang Institute.
One Chinese official who asked not to be identified noted that the U.S. hasn’t yet taken any real action outside of tariffs. Another expressed confidence that American allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea, wouldn’t risk a breakdown in ties with China to join a U.S.-led containment push.
So far, China has refrained from criticizing Trump directly and jeopardizing the rapport the U.S. leader says he has with Xi. That has helped keep hopes alive in Beijing that the two leaders could agree to not escalate the dispute, perhaps after an anticipated meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit next month in Argentina.
Pang Zhongying, a professor of international relations at the Macau University of Science and Technology, said that he hoped China listened to the U.S.’s complaints and didn’t just focus on the rhetoric.
“Misunderstanding will lead bilateral relations into a vicious cycle,” Pang said. “Pence’s speech may send confrontational signals, but not entirely wrong, and China should view it more rationally.”