Last week at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered the Trump administration’s first major policy speech on China. The speech was highly anticipated in both the United States and China because of its significance and the context in which it was delivered. Indeed, the Trump administration, since it took over in January 2017, has been criticized (rightly) for lacking a coherent China policy or even any China policy.
The once relatively smooth relationship between the two powers in 2017 suddenly turned into an ugly trade conflict in 2018, and, for the foreseeable future, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. In recent months, the United States has also stepped up its pressure on China in all realms including cybersecurity, human rights, and the South China Sea, thus rendering the U.S.-China relationship the most vulnerable it has been in recent decades.
Then came Pence’s big speech on China. This was supposed to be the defining approach to China for the Trump administration, and it was perhaps overdue. Pence’s speech can be divided into three parts, with the first part summarizing the long history of U.S.-China relations and emphasizing U.S. contributions to China’s rise; the second part detailing how China has seemingly betrayed the United States’ benign intentions and actions by actively hurting U.S. national interests in fields like economics, security, and even political interference; and the final part outlining a new U.S. approach to China, which prioritizes competition instead of cooperation. For those of us who regularly follow U.S.-China relations, nothing in Pence’s speech is surprising. At times, the speech felt like a good literature review done by a graduate student, with lots of stories that can also be found in major newspapers. Even the new allegation that China was trying to influence U.S. domestic politics was not much more than a few sweeping claims without much substantive proof, a point that actually is supported by the U.S. secretary of homeland security.
Even so, Pence’s speech has generated substantial interest and debate within China, mostly centering around whether his speech signaled a major seachange in U.S.-China relations, possibly opening the door to a “new cold war” between the two powers. Judging from various posts on Chinese social media and scholarly commentaries, three major views can be identified, ranging from pessimistic to concerned to relatively calm.
First, the pessimistic view holds that Pence’s speech is yet another strong indicator that the United States has finally dropped its hypocritical mask and shown its true colors, which is to contain China’s rise just like it did to the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War. Many found some similarities between Winston Churchill’s famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946, which later led to the Cold War, and Pence’s speech, which seemed to put the United States and China on an irreversible course of conflict in the coming years. Especially worrisome was Pence’s emphasis that there is now a rising consensus on China from two major political parties in the United States, meaning that both the Republican and Democratic parties now want to adopt a more confrontational approach to China. The implied conclusion is that no matter who the next U.S. president is, this new confrontational approach toward China would not change as there is an emerging U.S. version of a whole-of-government approach to China. Not surprisingly, this pessimistic view calls for active Chinese measures to counterbalance possible U.S. aggressive actions in a possible all-out conflict.
A second view — the more concerned view — does share the pessimistic view that the United States now seeks to make trouble with China in all possible realms, but at the same time also believes that there is still a chance that things will not be that ugly if other circumstances come into existence. Such circumstances might include a different U.S. president, a more divided U.S. domestic political arena, a slowing down of the U.S. economy, and an isolated United States on the world stage, among many other things. This concerned view does not see a pretty picture of U.S.-China relations in the coming years, because competition rather than cooperation is the new type of game in U.S.-China relations, regardless of who will reside in the White House. But a new U.S. administration will certainly adopt new tactics when it comes to competition with China, and new tactics sometimes can make major differences in U.S.-China relations. Moreover, there are still voices, even though in minority now, within the United States that would like to seek more cooperation with China. These voices might become more relevant or prominent in the future, just like today’s hawks were very much the extreme minority in the last two decades.
The calmer view differs from the above two views by seeing Pence’s speech more or less as old wine in an old bottle. According to this view, there was actually nothing new in Pence’s criticisms of China and, more importantly, the speech was mainly targeting a U.S. domestic audience just a month before the critical midterm elections in November. This view believes that Pence’s main objective was to fire up Republican supporters in key Midwestern states, hoping to avoid a major loss at the elections. Thus, Pence’s major speech was nothing more than noise in U.S.-China relations, and because of this it should not be taken seriously. More importantly, China should focus on its own domestic opening and reforms because China’s major threats come from within, not without. This view also rebukes the claim that the United States and China might enter a new cold war as there are still plenty of opportunities for cooperation — especially between the two societies.
Of course, only time can tell us how significant Mike Pence’s speech will be in the long history of U.S.-China relations. But for the moment, China does not seem to be rattled by Pence’s speech, as evidenced by diverse views within the country when it comes to the U.S.-China relationship. It is a good thing that not many in China see a new cold war coming between the two powers, but how to manage the coming strong competition between them is still a daunting challenge.