n a high-profile speech at the start of October, US Vice President Mike Pence launched a string of attacks against almost every aspect of China’s policies on trade, industry, the South China Sea, military expenditure, Taiwan, human rights, religion and cultural exchanges.
Coming against the backdrop of escalating trade friction, Pence’s speech, the strongest made by a US President or Vice President since the normalization of US-China relations in 1972, sparked concerns among diplomats and analysts. Some compared it to Winston Churchill’s historic “Iron Curtain Speech” of 1946, which essentially began the Cold War.
Given the complexity of the US-China relationship, disputes and disagreements between the two nations are not new. But Pence’s attack is unprecedented in tone.
Most notable is that the speech reiterated earlier accusations, then took the attack further by accusing China of meddling in the US elections with “a whole-of-government approach” to sway US public opinion. Just days before, US President Donald Trump had made similar accusations, which China refuted as “groundless” and “slander.” In the US press, many described the allegations as far-fetched.
As evidence, Pence seized on an advertorial about the trade war published in a newspaper in Iowa and paid for by a Chinese media outlet. But such practices have long been considered a form of “public diplomacy” in the US, and have been used by many nations. US allies including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Japan and European countries have contracted lobbyists to influence the US Congress in ways that go far further than anything China has allegedly done.
Trump also hinted that China’s retaliation –increased tariffs on American agricultural products, such as soybeans, was an attempt to meddle in the US elections, as it is perceived to target Trump’s voter base. But if China’s tariff on American soybeans, an issue completely under the remit of China, constitutes US election meddling, what about the European Union and Japan’s decision to buy more soybeans from the US, which obviously pleases Trump but potentially harms Democratic candidates?
Pence’s speech may serve a domestic agenda to promote the Republican position in the mid-term elections, calling on voters to rally behind Trump against a common evil enemy, China. Trump himself has used accusations against China to distract the media’s focus away from allegations of Russia’s involvement in the US elections.
The US should stop using China as a scapegoat for its domestic problems. Take the issue of trade. Mainstream economists agree that the US trade deficit to other industrial powers is not a result of “unfair deals,” but a by-product of the status of the US dollar being a global reserve currency. This status has conferred on the US a range of economic and financial advantages such as low interest rates and high stock prices. The trade deficit is also the result of the US’s liberal monetary policy that spurs capital-intensive industries at the cost of labor-intensive ones, and in China’s case, a ban on high-tech exports to China, which distorts the complementary trade relationship between the two countries.
Unfortunately, rather than a rational debate, the Trump administration has taken an increasingly feverish tone, resorting to emotion over reason. This tone has the potential to transform into a dangerous new form of McCarthyism. By sowing the seeds of Sinophobia and encouraging the public to question any interaction with China, there is a risk that Washington will lose its ability to think rationally about its China policy. Reports about debates within the Trump administration over whether to ban Chinese students already hint at such a trend.
The US should think twice before confronting China on every front. There is no doubt that a more confrontational approach will harm China, but it would damage US interests as well. After decades of globalization, China has been a major player in the international community and staunch supporter of multilateralism. Treating China as the number one strategic enemy of the US will force other countries to take sides, which would have catastrophic consequences for global peace, stability and prosperity.