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International relations

Distrust and verify: Pompeo refits Cold War slogan for China

Secretary of state rejects engagement with Beijing on Communist Party's terms

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo likened the Chinese Communist Party to "Frankenstein" in a speech July 23 at the Nixon Library in former President Richard Nixon's birthplace of Yorba Linda, California.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Washington should adopt "distrust and verify" as a mantra when dealing with Beijing, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a hard-hitting speech Thursday, repurposing a Soviet-era strategy that helped end the Cold War.

"President [Ronald] Reagan said that he dealt with the Soviet Union on the basis of 'trust but verify,'" Pompeo said in a speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Southern California. "When it comes to the CCP [Chinese Communist Party], I say we must distrust and verify."

The U.S. foreign policy chief called on the "free world" to be cleareyed about Beijing in order to "triumph over this new tyranny," suggesting that the Asian country is a Frankenstein's monster created by the West's previous efforts to engage.

The U.S. needs to start empowering Chinese dissidents while staying tough on Beijing, Pompeo argued, as "the old paradigm of blind engagement with China" has failed.

The Chinese people "know as well as anyone that we can never go back to the status quo" of engagement on the CCP's terms, Pompeo asserted. Several Chinese dissidents were present and recognized on the occasion.

He also said that "if we work alongside Russia, I'm convinced we can make the world safer," when asked about Moscow's role in a later Q&A session.

The U.S. foreign policy chief's remarks followed a blitz of similar China speeches given recently by National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General William Barr, punctuating a month of escalation in Sino-American tensions.

When Pompeo referenced the State Department's order this week to close down the Chinese consulate in Houston, the Nixon Library audience broke into a round of applause.

The U.S. must not return to blindly engaging with Beijing on the latter's terms, Pompeo warned, "if we want to have a free 21st century, and not the Chinese century of which [President] Xi Jinping dreams."

In a nod to President Donald Trump's "Keep America Great" and immigration rhetoric, Pompeo cited the need to protect "the American economy and indeed our way of life," warning that "Communist China is already within our borders."

What lay behind the secretary of state's speech?

"A few things are happening," Brookings Institution fellow Ryan Hass told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"A group of people in the administration with hawkish views, headed by Pompeo, have long wanted to adopt a tougher line on China but were blocked by President Trump's desire for the 'phase one' trade deal," Hass said. "Now that impediment has been removed."

While Trump does not want to see the phase one deal blown up, "anything below that, he will allow his advisers to push aggressively," he said.

Hass, a former director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the National Security Council in the Obama administration, said there is now a convergence of stances between hawkish policymakers and Trump political advisers who see demonizing China as a useful message for his reelection campaign.

"Their desire is to establish a new baseline in America's relationship with China that is more competitive, and one that won't be reversed in a different administration," he said.

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