Modern history is full of examples of famous speeches that have had a major impact on international relations and even human history.
On Oct. 4, US Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech on the US-China relationship at the Hudson Institute, which set out a thorough criticism of China’s domestic and foreign policy over the past few years. It could be seen as a historic speech that directed a stream of criticism at Beijing.
Pence expressed in no uncertain terms that the US will no longer attempt to appease the threat that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) poses to the world and said that the White House will be making a comprehensive adjustment to the US’ China policy.
As the 40th anniversary of the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the US and the PRC approaches, Pence’s speech marks the beginning of a new era from which there is no turning back.
The change to the US’ China policy is certainly not the special domain of US President Donald Trump; rather, it reflects the prevailing consensus within US government and political circles, including the White House, Capitol Hill and Washington think tanks.
By relying on its increasing national power and resorting to the use of unscrupulous means, Beijing has encroached upon US national interests and threatened the settled international order. Therefore, the US must not continue to appease China.
Washington’s stance toward Beijing has changed and it is now based on the assumption that China is a threat to its national interests. This viewpoint was clearly on display during Pence’s speech.
First, Pence set out how China has systematically engaged in a coordinated penetration of the US economy, military, politics, public debate and academia, and even tried to influence the outcome of US elections and interfere in US politics.
If Beijing had simply sought to extend its influence outside of the US’ sphere of influence, thereby only partially challenging the US’ pre-eminent position within the international order, this would probably not have been sufficient provocation to cause Washington to turn hostile against China.
Second, Pence outlined how Beijing has ramped up its economic and military activities around the globe, severely threatening the US-led global order and US national interests, and disturbing the free and open international order.
Pence said that the Chinese Communist Party has employed “an arsenal of policies inconsistent with free and fair trade, including tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft and industrial subsidies that are handed out like candy.”
In addition, Beijing is using opaque investments through its Belt and Road Initiative to promote a policy of “debt trap diplomacy” as a way to extend its influence throughout the world.
Washington finds any challenges to the US’ dominant global military position by any foreign power as particularly objectionable.
Pence went on to say that “China now spends as much on its military as the rest of Asia combined and Beijing is prioritizing capabilities to erode America’s military advantages at land, at sea, in air, and in space. Beijing wants nothing less than to push them from the Western Pacific in an attempt to prevent us from coming to the aid of our allies.”
Third, Pence said that after China began to reform and open up its economy in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the hopes that it would choose the path of liberty and democracy have come to nothing.
Pence could not have been clearer: “After the fall of the Soviet Union, we assumed that a free China was inevitable. Heady with optimism at the turn of the 21st century, America agreed to give Beijing open access to our economy, and we brought China into the WTO.”
According to conventional political theory, once the economy in a society takes off, the middle class will rise up to demand additional freedoms and democratic rights, which will bring political reform and lead to a gradual process of democratization.
However, despite China’s economic success, the government has not given its people more freedom. As such, thought and expression in China compares less favorably now to where it was during the 1980s and the grip of Beijing’s omnipresent surveillance system tightens almost by the day.
Pence said: “By 2020, China’s rulers aim to implement an Orwellian system premised on controlling every facet of human life. The so-called ‘social credit score,’ in the words of that program’s official blueprint, will allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”
Pence also took aim at Beijing’s suppression and persecution of Chinese Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists and Muslims.
He also singled out Taiwan’s democracy for praise and said that “America will always believe that Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people.”
Responding to Pence’s accusation in his speech that Beijing has perpetrated human rights abuses, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a rebuttal, saying: “As to how China’s human rights record is, the Chinese people have a greater say than all others.”
The facile nature of this argument is best demonstrated by applying the same logic to North Korea: “As to how North Korea’s human rights record is, the North Korean people have a greater say than all others.” Clearly, North Koreans have no such rights, and neither do Chinese.
Even more telling is that the full text of Pence’s speech is blocked by China’s online censors. This demonstrates that Beijing’s counter-argument is not in the least bit convincing.
While Pence’s criticisms of Beijing do contain a certain degree of exaggeration, the important point to note is that his arguments have already become a consensus within the highest levels of US government.
Under this consensus, the standoff between Washington and Beijing has moved from rhetoric into reality and this will be reflected in a range of US policies designed to contain China.
The US-China relationship has reached a historic inflection point. A storm is brewing, and the question is: How will Beijing respond?
John Lim is a law professor at the University of Tokyo and an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Modern History.
Translated by Edward Jones
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