US ex-VP Mike Pence slams Biden for being weak on China

Former US vice-president Mike Pence delivers a China policy speech at The Heritage Foundation in Washington. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON - Former US vice-president Mike Pence urged President Joe Biden to keep up the pressure on China, criticising the Democratic administration for "already rolling over" for Beijing on Wednesday (July 14) in his latest speech since leaving office.

Mr Pence called on Mr Biden to de-list Chinese companies that flout American accounting standards, improve the readiness of America's navy to protect freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region and, among other things, demand that China come clean on the origins of the coronavirus.

Mr Pence said that the Chinese government views America as an adversary and posed the greatest threat to American prosperity, security and values, adding: "China may not yet be an evil empire, but it is working hard to become one."

He also slammed the Biden administration for actions taken in its early days, including rejoining the World Health Organisation and the Paris Agreement on climate change, both of which the Trump administration criticised for favouring China and withdrew from.

"Weakness arouses evil. China senses weakness in the new administration," said Mr Pence, who is eyeing a 2024 run for the White House and has made a string of public appearances in recent weeks.

On Wednesday, he addressed diplomats and foreign policy watchers in his lecture at The Heritage Foundation, the Washington-based conservative think-tank which he joined in February as a distinguished visiting fellow.

The Biden administration has kept in place most of its predecessor's hardline policies on China, including tariffs on Chinese goods, a blacklist of certain Chinese companies and officials, and is stepping up criticism of China over its erosion of autonomy in Hong Kong and treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Mr Pence acknowledged that the tariffs were still in place, but called for a further decoupling of American and Chinese economies in critical industries, in the light of the "emerging Cold War" between the two superpowers - and to negotiate a trade agreement with Taiwan.

He said that the Biden administration should end farm subsidies for land owned by Chinese investors, prohibit Chinese investment in critical US infrastructure projects such as pipelines and power plants, and increase the number of Chinese companies prohibited from American investment "by at least an order of magnitude".

He also said that the US should prohibit H1-B visas from being issued to Chinese nationals working in US technology companies, "to protect American intellectual property and national security".

"This is not because we don't trust Chinese visa holders. We don't trust the Chinese government," he said, accusing Beijing of coercing its citizens to participate in industrial espionage.

Mr Pence also said that the US should ban Confucius Institutes and demand that the 2022 Winter Olympics be moved out of China, unless it "comes clean" on the origins of Covid-19 and ends its persecution of Uighur Muslims.

American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Zack Cooper told The Straits Times that the speech was a "signal of where the Trump administration was headed rhetorically on China, and yet another sign that Republicans will keep China in their crosshairs over the next few months and years".

But he doubted that the speech will force the Biden administration to alter its behaviour on China.

"The Biden team has been far tougher on China issues than many expected," he said. "But I do think that the administration will be worried about opening itself up to critiques as it engages with China over the next few weeks."

"The challenge for the Biden administration will be to show that they can deliver useful outcomes without sacrificing key issues," said Dr Cooper.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is scheduled to make a trip to China next week, Bloomberg and the South China Morning Post reported, and Dr Cooper said her visit is likely to be the first real test in this regard.

Mr Pence's hawkish rhetoric on China echoed other speeches he made during his time in office and was not out of place for a Republican lawmaker, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Centre.

The analysis, which looked at more than five million Tweets and Facebook posts by nearly 800 senators and congressmen from 2016 till April this year, was published on Wednesday.

It found that while both Democrats and Republicans have increasingly talked about China on social media since 2018, Republican lawmakers were far more likely than Democrats to use terms like "lie", "investigation" and "(hold) accountable" in social media posts that mention China in the context of the pandemic.

Republicans were also at least five times more likely than Democrats to use terms such as "propaganda", "spy" and "(intellectual) property (theft)".

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