Mike Pence criticises China's behaviour, but leaves door open for cooperation and trade deal

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Mike Pence speaks on the future of the US' relationship with China. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - US Vice-President Mike Pence on Thursday (Oct 24) accused China of behaviour that he said had become even more aggressive and destabilising in the past year, but stressed that the United States was still open to practical cooperation with its rival.

Mr Pence heavily criticised a wide range of Chinese policies, from intellectual property theft to expansionism in the South China Sea and repression of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, in a speech that lasted nearly 40 minutes at an event by the Wilson Centre, a non-partisan think-tank in Washington.

His closely-watched address comes ahead of next month's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit in Chile, where the White House is hoping President Donald Trump will sign a preliminary trade deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Nevertheless, Mr Pence stressed that America does not seek confrontation with China, nor to contain its development or to decouple from it.

"We seek a level playing field - open markets, fair trade, and a respect for our values. We're not seeking to contain China's development. We want a constructive relationship with China's leaders like we have enjoyed for generations with China's people," he said.

The Vice-President said that since his watershed speech at the Hudson Institute think-tank a year ago, when he delivered a similar hawkish broadside against China, China has continued to aid and abet the theft of American intellectual property.

China's Communist Party is also building a historically-unrivalled surveillance state targeting its ethnic minorities, and is even exporting the technological tools it uses in places like the Xinjiang region to countries in Latin America and Africa, he added.

"China's military action in the region and its approach to its neighbours over the past year has also remained increasingly provocative," said Mr Pence.

He said that Beijing stepped up its use of maritime militia vessels to regularly menace Filipino and Malaysian sailors and fishermen, in addition to the Chinese Coast Guard's attempts to stop Vietnam from drilling for oil and natural gas off of its own shores.

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After decades of Chinese economic aggression and human rights abuses enabled by the American political establishment, Washington's view of the US-China relationship has changed, he said.

"No longer will America and its leaders hope that economic engagement alone will transform communist China's authoritarian state into a free and open society that respects private property, the rule of law, and international rules of commerce," said Mr Pence.

Instead, the US now recognises China as a strategic and economic rival, a view set out in the 2017 National Security Strategy paper and backed by a strong majority of the American public from cities to farms, he added.

Hong Kong protests

America also stands with the protesters in Hong Kong, said Mr Pence, accusing Beijing of increasingly intervening in the semi-autonomous territory and curtailing the rights of Hong Kong people.

He said: "We respect the sovereignty of nations. But America expects Beijing to honour its commitments, and President Trump has repeatedly made it clear it would be much harder for us to make a trade deal if the authorities resort to the use of violence against protestors in Hong Kong."

The US will continue to urge China to show restraint and honour its commitments made in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, said the Vice-President.

"To the millions in Hong Kong who have been peacefully demonstrating to protect your rights these past months, we stand with you. We are inspired by you, and we urge you to stay on the path of nonviolent protest," he added, to the audience's applause.

Mr Pence also accused China of trying to export censorship by exploiting corporate greed, as he chided American sports corporations Nike and the National Basketball Association for recently yielding to Chinese pressure to toe the line on sensitive issues like the Hong Kong protests.

"Far too many American multinational corporations have kowtowed to the lure of China's money and markets by muzzling not only criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, but even affirmative expressions of American values," said Mr Pence.

Despite all this, Mr Trump remains optimistic that a trade agreement can be reached, he added.

"Despite the many challenges we face in the United States-China relationship, I can assure you that under the leadership of President Donald Trump, the United States will not allow these challenges to foreclose practical cooperation with China," he said.

"We will continue to negotiate in good faith with China to bring about long-overdue structural reforms in our economic relationship."

China on Friday (Oct 25) said it is extremely indignant about the speech and resolutely opposes Mr Pence's comments. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily press briefing on Friday that the United States should reflect on its own domestic issues, like gun violence, and correct its ways.

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