A speech by U.S. vice-president Mike Pence outlining the Trump administration's "new approach" to China may not herald a new cold war, but is a belated recognition of the intentions of President Xi Jinping's administration, Chinese commentators said on Friday.
"The United States of America has adopted a new approach to China," Pence announced in a speech on Thursday to U.S. think-tank the Hudson Institute, promising renewed resistance in Washington to Beijing's "authoritarian expansionism" since the ruling Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949.
Pence said previous U.S. administrations had chosen engagement with China in the hope of encouraging growing freedom in the country, including a more liberal economy, respect for private property, religious freedom, and human rights. "But that hope has gone unfulfilled," he said.
Instead, Chinese officials and businesses have been told "to obtain American intellectual property by any means necessary ... and Beijing now requires many American businesses to hand over their trade secrets as the cost of doing business in China."
"Chinese security agencies have masterminded the wholesale theft of American technology, including cutting-edge military blueprints," he said, accusing Beijing of military expansionism in the Asia-Pacific.region.
"Beijing is also using its power like never before," Pence said, citing a standoff between a People's Liberation Army (PLA) naval vessel and the USS Decatur, which was forced to take action to avoid collision in international waters in the South China Sea.
"We will not be intimidated; we will not stand down," Pence said.
He said growing government surveillance of Chinese citizens and near-total censorship of the internet was on track to create "an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life."
Meanwhile, "a new wave of persecution is crashing down on Chinese Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims," Pence said, citing the mass incarceration of a suspected one million Muslim Uyghurs in "brainwashing" camps in the northwestern region of Xinjiang and more than 150 self-immolations of Tibetan Buddhists "to protest China’s repression of their beliefs and culture."
Pence also hit out at Beijing's redoubled efforts to isolate the democratic island of Taiwan, persuading three Latin American countries to switch diplomatic recognition from the island, which underwent a democratic transition after the Kuomintang nationalist government fled there in 1949.
"America will always believe Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people," Pence said.
Pence also accused China of "meddling in America’s democracy ... rewarding or coercing American businesses, movie studios, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists, and local, state, and federal officials."
He cited U.S. intelligence reports as saying that China is seeking to drive a wedge between U.S. officials, using differential trade tariffs, adding that Beijing has spent "billions of dollars on propaganda outlets" overseas, prompting the U.S. Department of Justice to order two Chinese state news organizations to register as foreign agents on U.S. soil.
"Beijing has mobilized covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policies," Pence said.
"Beijing provides generous funding to universities, think tanks, and scholars, with the understanding that they will avoid ideas that the Communist Party finds dangerous or offensive," he said.
Domestically, Beijing now requires foreign joint ventures operating in China to set up party committees, giving the ruling party control over hiring and investment decisions, Pence added.
Wu Qiang, former politics lecturer at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, said Pence's speech, while doubtless timed to coincide with political campaigning for mid-term elections in the U.S., had nonetheless summed up a sense of deep unease in U.S. political circles about the bilateral relationship with China.
"Naturally, there is a strong flavor of electioneering in the background of Pence's speech," Wu said. "On the one hand, he endorsed the new cold war narrative that has been running since 2008, and how that narrative is conceptualized domestically."
"On the other, I don't think it was a comprehensive declaration of a new cold war either," he said, adding that Pence had left the door open to further trade talks.
"But it is definitely right to call it a major political milestone," Wu said.
Hu Shaojiang, a former banker and Hong Kong-based political commentator, welcomed the shift in U.S. China policy away from what he called previous policies of "appeasement."
"Now they have finally realized that [such policies were only] wishful thinking and fantasy," Hu wrote in a commentary broadcast by RFA's Cantonese Service on Friday. "This is a recognition that the appeasement policies of the past were wrong."
The recognition that China is inheriting the totalitarian mantle of the former Soviet Union represents "great progress for U.S. politicians and the mainstream of society," Hu said.
However, an international relations scholar at Lanzhou University who gave only his surname Zhou said the ruling Chinese Communist Party is unlikely to care much about Washington's new approach.
"Without a change in the inner workings of power [in China], the U.S. will be unable to exert much pressure, and the Chinese people will be the ones to suffer the brunt of a cold war, if it does develop," Zhou said. "Historically, China's rulers have only ever cared about holding onto power."
Friction and conflict
Liang Yunxiang, a scholar of international relations at Beijing's prestigious Peking University, said China is unlikely to respond well to any new measures introduced by Washington.
"My feeling is that the friction and conflict between China and the U.S. is going to take a long time to process," Liang said. "The two countries have very different values and political ideologies, so perhaps the conflict will just get deeper and deeper."
"But however deep it goes, I don't see a situation of major military confrontation," he said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying hit out at Pence's "unwarranted accusations," saying that he had "slandered" China by claiming it interferes in U.S. politics.
"No one can stop the Chinese people from steadfastly marching ahead along the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics and making greater achievements," Hua said, adding that Beijing remains committed to its principles of "peaceful coexistence" with other countries.
"We urge the U.S. to ... stop groundlessly accusing and slandering China and harming China's interests and China-U.S. ties," Hua said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.