WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Vice President Mike Pence escalated Washington’s pressure campaign against Beijing on Thursday by accusing China of “malign” efforts to undermine President Donald Trump ahead of next month’s congressional elections and reckless military actions in the South China Sea.
In what was billed as a major policy address, Pence sought to build on Trump’s speech at the United Nations last week in which he alleged that China was trying to interfere in the pivotal Nov. 6 midterm elections. Neither Trump nor Pence provided hard evidence of Chinese meddling.
Pence’s speech at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington marked a sharpened U.S. approach toward China that goes beyond the bitter trade war between the world’s two biggest economies and includes disputes such as cyber activities, Taiwan, freedom of the seas and human rights.
Pence alleged China was waging a sophisticated effort to sway the Nov. 6 elections against Trump’s Republican Party in retaliation for his trade policies against Beijing and vowed to continue to expose Beijing’s “malign influence and interference.”
China has previously denied Trump’s accusation.
Pence said Beijing, with an eye not only to the congressional elections but also to Trump’s re-election bid in 2020, had “mobilized covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policies” and was targeting its tariffs to hurt states where Trump has strong support.
“China wants a different American president,” Pence said, adding that the “meddling” was intended to undermine support for Trump and his agenda.
The allegations, however, have raised questions as to whether Trump and his aides are trying to deflect attention from an investigation of his campaign’s possible ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and also set up China for the blame if Republicans do poorly in next month’s elections. The vote will determine whether they keep control of Congress.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington referred queries about Pence’s speech to an interview that China’s ambassador, Cui Tiankai, gave to National Public Radio on Wednesday.
Cui said Beijing wanted to resolve the trade war through negotiations but that would required goodwill from both sides. He said this was currently not sufficient from the U.S. side.
Washington has long cited China as a major culprit in the cyber hacking of U.S. government and corporate databases. But U.S. officials and independent analysts say they have not detected the kind of systematic manipulation of social media and hacking of emails that Russia is alleged to have engaged in during the 2016 election, which Trump won.
Despite that, Pence said, “As a senior career member of our intelligence community recently told me, what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country.”
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the Washington Post this week there was no indication of any foreign effort to disrupt election infrastructure but added that “we know they (China) have the capability and the will.”
Chris Johnson, a former CIA analyst and China expert now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said Pence’s speech appeared aimed at building a narrative that a vote for the Democrats would be vote for China.
“Another part of it is trying to distract attention from the real threat, which is Russia,” he said. “To my mind there’s nothing in that speech that rises to the level of 2016 Russian active measures.”
Trump has justified his tough trade policy against Beijing with accusations that China steals U.S. intellectual property and limits access to its own market. The two countries have imposed increasingly severe rounds of tariffs on each other.
Pence said Chinese security agencies have masterminded the “wholesale theft of American technology,” including military blueprints, and warned Washington would continue to take action.
He also urged Google (GOOGL.O) to end development of its “Dragonfly” app that would make it easier to track internet searches and thus strengthen the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship efforts.
Google declined to comment, except to reiterate that its China search engine project is “exploratory” and not close to launching.
Bloomberg Businessweek cited 17 unnamed intelligence and company sources as saying that Chinese spies had placed computer chips inside equipment used by about 30 companies, as well as multiple U.S. government agencies, which would give Beijing secret access to internal networks. Apple Inc AAPL.O and Amazon AMZN.O denied the report.
Pence also said China had deployed anti-ship and anti-air missiles on islands it is building in the disputed South China Sea, despite promises not to militarize them.
He accused China of “reckless harassment” because of an incident on Sunday in which a Chinese naval vessel nearly collided with a U.S. destroyer, the Decatur, near the Spratly islands.
“We will not be intimidated,” Pence said of the operation, the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters.
China’s Defense Ministry said a Chinese naval ship had been sent to warn the U.S. vessel to leave and that Beijing had irrefutable sovereignty in the area.
Pence accused China of using its economic power to bully smaller countries and said it had threatened the stability of the Taiwan Strait by pressuring three Latin American countries to sever ties with Taiwan and recognize Beijing. China considers the self-ruled island a wayward province.
Pence also denounced Beijing’s crackdown on minority Muslims in the Xinjiang region. U.S. officials have said they are considering targeted sanctions over alleged human rights abuses.
Last month, a U.N. rights panel said it had received credible reports that up to one million ethnic Uighurs may be held in extra-legal detention in Xinjiang.
China has said Xinjiang faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists who plot attacks and stir up tensions.
Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Bill Trott