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International relations

Pence hits hard at China at critical juncture in trade

US vice president sides with Hong Kong protesters and slams Nike and NBA

Vice President Mike Pence discusses U.S.-China relations in his Wilson Center speech at Washington's Conrad Hotel.   © AP

NEW YORK -- U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday struck a hawkish tone on Beijing in a key speech on the administration's China policy, accusing it of behavior that is "more aggressive and destabilizing."

In a much-anticipated address for the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, Pence delivered an across-the-board broadside against China. The harsh tone came despite the recent deescalation in trade tensions between the two countries.

"I must tell you that in the year since my Hudson [Institute] speech, Beijing has still not taken significant action to improve our economic relationship," the vice president said. "And on many other issues we raised, Beijing's behavior has become even more aggressive and destabilizing."

Pence touched on China's treatment of Hong Kong; mass surveillance and detentions in Xinjiang; and structural issues in Sino-American trade relations, such as intellectual property theft.

"Nothing in the past year has put on display the Chinese Communist Party's antipathy to liberty, so much as the unrest in Hong Kong," he said.

"President [Donald] Trump has repeatedly made it clear that it would be much harder for us to make a trade deal if the authorities resort to the use of violence against protesters in Hong Kong," he said.

"We stand with you, we are inspired by you. We urge you to stay on the path of nonviolent protest," Pence said, offering support to the protesters.

He went on to criticize U.S. sneaker maker Nike and the National Basketball Association for failing to defend Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey after he tweeted support of Hong Kong protesters earlier this month.

The NBA behaved like "a wholly owned subsidiary of" China, he said, while Nike "prefers checking its social conscience at the door" when it comes to Hong Kong.

Pence also characterized China's Belt and Road efforts as only "ostensibly for commercial purposes," warning that "those purposes could eventually become military."

But the vice president offered assurances that the administration has no desire to "decouple from China" and that the U.S. "will not allow these challenges to foreclose practical cooperation with China."

Pence's speech, which came at a critical juncture in bilateral trade talks, marked his second articulation of the administration's China policy. It maintained the critical tone of his address at the Hudson Institute in Washington this month last year.

The speech had originally been scheduled for June but was put off ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, considering progress in trade talks with China, the White House said at the time.

In a Q&A session following his address, Pence said he remains hopeful a phase 1 trade deal can be struck in a just few weeks, before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit where Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are set to meet next month in Chile.

"Pence's speech won’t derail phase 1 of the trade agreement, which we expect to be signed in November," Kelsey Broderick, a China analyst at Eurasia Group, said in a Thursday note. 

But his remarks "will give credence to voices within China saying that the US has little interest in improving relations (with Pence calling China a strategic rival) and that tariffs are intended to hurt China more than they are intended to address legitimate business concerns," Broderick wrote. "The hardening of attitudes on both sides puts downward pressure on our 20% chance that a phase 2 trade deal is reached."

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