The United States is making its most pointed allegations yet that China is targeting the American political system, claiming it is an attempt to undermine the administration of President Donald Trump by employing power in more proactive and coercive ways.
“China wants a different American president,” said Vice President Mike Pence in a speech on Thursday, accusing Beijing of “meddling in America’s democracy.”
The remarks come a week after Trump accused the Chinese government of attempting to interfere in the U.S. midterm elections, to be held next month, and the president said details would be released by Pence in his speech.
The vice president, at the Hudson Institute in Washington, said he was citing information “some of which we’ve gleaned from intelligence assessments, some of which is publicly available.”
Pence accused the Chinese Communist Party of “rewarding or coercing American businesses, movie studios, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists, and local, state, and federal officials. Worst of all, China has initiated an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 elections, and the environment leading into the 2020 presidential elections.”
The vice president said a senior career member of the U.S. intelligence community recently told him, “what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what the China is doing across this country.”
Since Trump took office early last year, his administration has escalated pressure on Beijing, most recently with more than 250 billion dollars’ worth of tariffs on products for which the Chinese have retaliated in kind.
“And when it comes to influencing the midterms, you need only look at Beijing’s tariffs in response to ours,” said Pence. “They specifically targeted industries and states that would play an important role in the 2018 election. By one estimate, more than 80 percent of U.S. counties targeted by China voted for President Trump and I in 2016; now China wants to turn these voters against our administration.”
Citing U.S. intelligence community reports, Pence claimed the Chinese are targeting state and local governments and officials in the United States in an attempt to exploit divisions between federal and local levels on policy.
“It’s using wedge issues, like trade tariffs, to advance Beijing’s political influence,” said the vice president.
According to Pence, the Chinese government circulated a sensitive “Propaganda and Censorship Notice” in June, that stated Beijing must “strike accurately and carefully, splitting apart different domestic groups” in the United States.
To that end, Pence said, “Beijing has mobilized covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policy.”
“The current administration is willing to call a spade a spade,” says Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center.
But she says that while Pence’s speech contains a lot of facts and is comprehensive on issues where China seeks to challenge or undermine American national interests, the evidence put forward by the Trump administration, such as a Des Moines newspaper supplement published by the Chinese and the tariffs targeting Trump’s voter base, “might be a little thin to substantiate China’s interference in U.S. elections.”
Yun also contends that making an accusation of “interference in U.S. elections implies covert operations. And to accuse China of interfering suggests that China should not have any reaction or retaliation when Trump launched the trade war. In brief, influence and interference are two different things.”
Trump signed an executive order last month authorizing sanctions against those found to be involved in election interference.
A special prosecutor is investigating ties between Trump’s 2016 election campaign and Russia.
In addition, Pence said in his speech the Chinese also are trying to project their military power farther than ever before, noting Chinese ships routinely patrolling around the disputed islands administered by Japan, and Beijing’s deployment of advanced anti-ship and anti-air missiles atop an archipelago of military bases constructed on artificial islands.
“China’s aggression was on display this week, when a Chinese naval vessel came within 45 yards of the USS Decatur as it conducted freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, forcing our ship to quickly maneuver to avoid collision,” said Pence. “Despite such reckless harassment, the United States Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand. We will not be intimidated, and we will not stand down.”
Pence said Beijing is extending a lifeline “to the corrupt and incompetent Maduro regime in Venezuela,” pledging billions of dollars in loans that can be repaid with oil. The Chinese, according to the vice president, are “also impacting some nations’ politics by providing direct support to parties and candidates who promise to accommodate China’s strategic objectives."
Since last year, Pence noted that the Chinese Communist Party has convinced three Latin American nations to sever ties with Taipei and recognize Beijing.
In remarks the government in Beijing likely will consider particularly provocative, Pence characterized these actions by China as threatening the stability of the Taiwan Strait, declaring that Taiwan’s embrace of democracy – in contrast to the one-party system on the mainland – “shows a better path for all the Chinese people.”
VOA's William Gallo contributed to this report.