WASHINGTON (AFP) - Vice-President Mike Pence on Thursday (Oct 4) accused China of military aggression, commercial theft and rising human rights violations as he cast the Asian power as a villain bent on interfering in upcoming US elections.
In a blistering speech that expands on complaints aired by President Donald Trump at the United Nations last week, Pence accused China of waging an "unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion" ahead of critical congressional elections on Nov 6.
"To put it bluntly, President Trump's leadership is working; China wants a different American president," Pence said at the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think-tank.
"There can be no doubt - China is meddling in America's democracy."
The administration's offensive on China comes as a cloud hangs over Trump with an investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russia to swing the 2016 presidential election in the Republican real estate tycoon's favour.
Just hours before Pence spoke, the US Justice Department indicted seven Russian intelligence agents as part of a joint crackdown with Britain and The Netherlands on alleged hacking by Moscow, including against the Democratic Party, Trump's domestic rivals.
But Pence said: "As a senior career member of our intelligence community told me just this week, what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country."
Pence's sharply worded address comes days before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to visit China on a trip focused on nuclear diplomacy with North Korea - an area in which the United States still seeks Beijing's cooperation.
China has maintained a calm tone as US language escalates. China's ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai, in an interview with National Public Radio aired shortly before Pence's address, said there was a "much larger need for cooperation" than competition with Washington.
Relations between the world's two largest economies have plummeted in recent weeks with Trump placing US$250 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods, in part over charges that Beijing forces US companies to hand over technological know-how.
Larry Kudlow, the director of the White House's National Economic Council, separately said that the United States was speaking to the European Union and Japan about taking joint action against China.
Speaking before the Economic Club of Washington, Kudlow - with echoes of the Iraq war - spoke of a "trade coalition of the willing to confront China."
Pence lashed out at China for focusing its retaliatory tariffs on states vital to the Republicans' electoral chances.
He also slammed Beijing for placing a multi-page advertisement extolling the virtues of US-China trade in the Des Moines Register, the highest-circulation newspaper in Iowa, a swing state whose longtime governor Terry Branstad is Trump's ambassador to Beijing.
Such paid supplements by foreign governments are commonplace in US newspapers, but Pence complained that the United States was not allowed to print similar advertisements in China's state-controlled press.
HAILING TAIWAN AS MODEL
Touching a particularly sensitive issue for China, Pence attacked Beijing for coaxing three more Latin American nations to switch recognition from Taiwan.
"These actions threaten the stability of the Taiwan Strait - and the United States of America condemns them," Pence said.
The democratic, self-governing island is home to nationalists who fled in 1949 after losing China's civil war and has waged an increasingly lonely campaign for diplomatic recognition as the Republic of China.
Pence made clear that the United States still adhered to its four-decade policy of recognizing only Beijing but added to applause: "Let me also say that Taiwan's embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people."
Pence also accused Beijing of showing its "aggression" when a Chinese navy vessel recently sailed in the dispute-ridden South China Sea near the USS Decatur destroyer, which according to US officials had to make a quick detour to avoid collision.
"Despite such reckless harassment, the United States Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand," Pence said.
"We will not be intimidated; we will not stand down."
The vice-president, a favourite of conservative US Christians, also criticised China on human rights, voicing disappointment that rising prosperity has not led to reforms.
China "has taken a sharp U-turn toward control and oppression," Pence said, adding: "A new wave of persecution is crashing down on Chinese Christians, Buddhists and Muslims."