WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence intensified Washington’s pressure campaign against Beijing on Thursday by accusing China of “malign” efforts to undermine President Donald Trump ahead of next month’s congressional elections and reckless military actions in the South China Sea.
In what was billed as a major policy address, Pence sought to build on Trump’s speech at the United Nations last week in which he accused China of trying to interfere in the vote that will determine if his Republican Party keeps control of Congress.
Neither Trump nor Pence provided hard evidence of meddling by China, which last week rejected the president’s allegation.
Pence’s speech at Washington’s Hudson Institute marked a sharpened U.S. approach toward China going beyond the bitter trade war between the world’s two biggest economies.
It highlighted disputes such as cyber attacks, Taiwan, freedom of the seas and human rights.
Pence said China was waging a sophisticated effort to sway the elections against the Republicans in retaliation for Trump’s trade policies. He vowed to continue to expose Beijing’s “malign influence and interference.”
Pence said Beijing, with an eye not only to the congressional elections but also to Trump’s 2020 re-election bid, had “mobilized covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policies” and was targeting its tariffs to hurt states where Trump has strong support.
“China wants a different American president,” Pence said.
He said that in June, Beijing laid out its strategy in a sensitive “Propaganda and Censorship Notice” which stated that China must “strike accurately and carefully, splitting apart different domestic groups” in the United States.
However, the allegations have raised questions whether Trump and his aides are trying to deflect attention from an investigation of his campaign’s possible ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and also set up China for blame if Republicans do poorly in November’s vote.
In a statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Pence in his speech had made “unwarranted accusations ... and slandered China by claiming that China meddles in U.S. internal affairs and elections.”
China is committed to working with the United States for “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation,” she added.
While China’s state media slammed Pence’s comments, the nationalistic tabloid Global Times called for restraint, stressing that China should assess the situation objectively and refrain from a “battle of wills” with the United States.
In particular, China must not let its problems with the United States escalate to affect its relationship with the entire Western world, or make China “conservative” in reforms and domestic policies, it said in an editorial on Friday.
Washington has long cited China as a major culprit in the hacking of U.S. government and corporate databases. But U.S. officials and independent analysts say they have not detected the kind of systematic manipulation of social media and email hacking Russia was accused of in 2016.
Even so, Pence said: “As a senior career member of our intelligence community recently told me, what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country.”
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the Washington Post this week there was no indication of any foreign effort to disrupt election infrastructure, but added that “we know they (China) have the capability and the will.”
China expert Chris Johnson, a former CIA analyst now at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Pence’s speech appeared aimed in part at building a narrative that a vote for the Democrats would be vote for China.
“Another part of it is trying to distract attention from the real threat, which is Russia,” he said. “There’s nothing in that speech that rises to the level of 2016 Russian active measures.”
Trump has justified his trade policy by accusing China of stealing intellectual property and limiting access to its market. The two countries have imposed increasingly severe tariffs on each other.
Pence said Chinese security agencies had masterminded the “wholesale theft of American technology,” including military blueprints, and warned Washington would continue to take action.
He urged Google (GOOGL.O) to end development of its “Dragonfly” app that would make it easier to track Internet searches and strengthen Chinese censorship.
Google declined comment, except to reiterate that its China search engine project was “exploratory” and not close to launch.
Bloomberg Businessweek cited 17 unidentified intelligence and company sources as saying that Chinese spies had placed computer chips in equipment used by about 30 firms, as well as multiple U.S. government agencies, which would give Beijing secret access to internal networks. Apple Inc (AAPL.O) and Amazon (AMZN.O) denied the report.
Pence also said China had deployed anti-ship and anti-air missiles on artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, despite promises not to militarize them.
He accused Beijing of “reckless harassment” in an incident on Sunday in which a Chinese naval vessel nearly collided with a U.S. destroyer near the Spratly islands.
“We will not be intimidated,” Pence said of the operation, the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters.
China said a Chinese warship had been sent to warn the U.S. vessel to leave an area of irrefutable Chinese sovereignty.
Pence accused China of using its economic power to bully smaller countries and said it had threatened the stability of the Taiwan Strait by pressuring three Latin American countries to sever ties with Taipei and recognize Beijing.
Pence also denounced Beijing’s crackdown on minority Muslims in the Xinjiang region.
Last month, a U.N. rights panel said it had received credible reports that up to one million ethnic Uighurs may be held in extra-legal detention in Xinjiang, which China says faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists.
U.S. officials have said they are considering targeted sanctions for human rights abuses.
Daniel Russel, Washington’s top diplomat for East Asia until last year, said there was a lot to dislike about China’s behavior. But he said the claim that China was working to defeat Trump at the ballot box “rings hollow” and the approach could be counterproductive.
“Even if you accept all of Pence’s complaints at face value, it’s hard to make the case that the administration’s Cold War-style vilification of China will be effective or beneficial to U.S. interests, since it’s clearly pushing Beijing to intransigence, not compromise.”
Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Christopher Bing, Paresh Dave and Doina Chiacu; and Yawen Chen and Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Bill Trott and Grant McCool