Pence accuses China of interfering in U.S. policies, politics
Tells Washington audience Beijing 'wants a different American president'
U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence is accusing China of trying to undermine President Donald Trump as the administration deploys tough new rhetoric over Chinese trade, economic and foreign policies.
At the Hudson Institute think tank on Thursday, Pence said China was using its power in "more proactive and coercive ways to interfere in the domestic policies and politics of the United States."
"China wants a different American president," Pence said.
Pence's speech came a week after Trump accused China during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council of interfering in American elections to help his Democratic rivals.
"Regrettably, we found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election," Trump said. "They do not want me, or us, to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade." As proof, Trump later referenced a paid advertising insert in the Des Moines Register by Chinese government-affiliated entities.
Pence charged that China is targeting "industries and states that would play an important role in the 2018 election" as it responds to Trump's protectionist trade tariffs on China. "By one estimate, more than 80 per cent of U.S. counties targeted by China voted for President Trump in 2016; now China wants to turn these voters against our administration," Pence said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said Pence's speech made "unwarranted accusations… and slandered China by claiming that China meddles in U.S. internal affairs and elections."
China is committed to working with the United States for "non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation," she said in a statement.
U.S. intelligence agencies assess that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election to boost Trump over his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton through hacking and releasing sensitive documents and social media manipulation.
Trump signed an executive order in September authorizing sanctions against those found to be involved in election interference, but U.S. officials have said repeatedly they have not seen nearly the same level of activity by Russia and others in the midterms as in 2016.
Much of Pence's remarks were meant to inform the public of what the U.S. government terms as China's covert and overt influence campaign.
Since Trump took office last year, his administration has escalated pressure on China, most recently with several rounds of tit-for-tat economic trade tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in goods. And Trump's first national security strategy released last year labelled China a "revisionist power" alongside Russia.
Pence quoted an assessment from the U.S. intelligence community that "China is targeting U.S., state and local governments and officials to exploit any divisions between federal and local levels on policy. It's using wedge issues, like trade tariffs, to advance Beijing's political influence."
Sounding the alarm, Pence warned other nations to be wary of doing business with China, condemning the Asian country's "debt diplomacy" that allows it to draw developing nations into its orbit.
Pence also warned American businesses to be vigilant against Chinese efforts to leverage access to their markets to modify corporate behaviour to their liking.
He accused China of threatening "to deny a business license for a major U.S. corporation if it refused to speak out against our administration's policies."
Pence asserted that China's actions surpass those of Russia in trying to shape American opinion. He says an intelligence official told him that what "the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country."
Pence also protested Beijing's construction of military fortresses in the South China Sea, as well as Chinese efforts to intercept American ships carrying out naval exercises designed to contest China's territorial expansion. He condemned a Chinese ship passing this week within about 40 meters of the USS Decatur, calling it "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," he said.
With files from Reuters