Secretary of State Michael Pompeo cast China’s leaders as tyrants bent on global hegemony, painting a dark portrait of the country’s direction as tensions soar between the world’s two biggest economies.
President Xi Jinping “isn’t destined to tyrannize inside and outside China forever unless we allow it,” Pompeo said Thursday at the Richard Nixon presidential library in Yorba Linda, California. “Securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party is the mission of our time.”
Pompeo cast competition with China as an existential struggle between right and wrong, hearkening back to the language of the U.S.-Soviet standoff during the Cold War. His remarks, at the site dedicated to the president who helped open U.S.-China ties half a century ago, were the culmination of a series of speeches by top administration officials about the threat from China.
“If we bend the knee now, our children’s children may be at the mercy of the Chinese Community Party, whose actions are the primary challenge today in the free world,” he said. “The free world must triumph over this new tyranny.”
The speech came a day after the U.S. unexpectedly ordered China to close its consulate in Houston within 72 hours, following what it said were years of espionage directed from the diplomatic compound against U.S. commercial and national security assets. China rejected the accusations and vowed to retaliate.
Pompeo’s speech was built off a conviction widely held within the Trump administration and its allies in Congress, that U.S. efforts to bind China to the international system and accommodate its rise since the Nixon era have failed, and that it’s time for a much tougher approach. While Pompeo didn’t call for regime change, he came close, saying the U.S. must “engage and empower the Chinese people.”
Taking a more pessimistic twist on President Ronald Reagan’s adage that the U.S. should “trust but verify” in relations with the Soviet Union, Pompeo said the U.S. needs to “distrust and verify” agreements with Beijing.
That language, along with Pompeo’s claim that Communists “almost always lie,” drew scrutiny from China experts who said it was needlessly antagonistic and might open the Trump administration up to political attack.
Pompeo’s language “opens the door for the Biden team to ask about the verification measures in the phase one trade deal,” said Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He said the tough words “are going to make it hard for him to sit down with the leaders of the Communist party and negotiate with them.”
The location of the speech, at the Nixon library, was intentionally symbolic. Its substance, in remarks entitled “Communist China and the Free World’s Future,” was chosen to show that ultimately, the administration believes efforts at engagement by Nixon and his successors failed.
“If the free world doesn’t change Communist China, Communist China will change us,” Pompeo said. “There can’t be a return to past practices because they’re comfortable or because they’re convenient.”
U.S. Move on Houston Consulate Risks American Footprint in China
The closing of China’s Houston consulate was only the latest in a series of escalations the administration has undertaken since the Covid-19 pandemic emerged and overwhelmed the U.S., where more than 140,000 people have since died. Up until the virus erupted in the U.S., President Donald Trump and his aides largely praised China, along with Xi and the “phase one” trade deal the two nations signed.
But with the virus raging across the U.S. just over three months before the presidential election, that spirit of bonhomie is gone.
In recent weeks, the administration has slapped sanctions on senior Communist Party leaders over rights abuses in Xinjiang, stripped Hong Kong of its special trading status, and persuaded countries, including the U.K., to barHuawei Technologies Co Ltd. from its next-generation communications networks. It’s also imposed new restrictions on Chinese diplomats in the U.S. and restricted visas for some Chinese graduate students.
Before Thursday, top officials including National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray had all outlined what they see as China’s wrongdoing.
“Now my goal today is to put it all together for the American people,” Pompeo said, detailing what he said the threat means for the American economy and its freedoms. He was joined by Tiananmen Square student leader Wang Dan and pro-democracy advocate Wei Jingsheng.
Take It Global
As part of his efforts, Pompeo is seeking to take the U.S. campaign global by rounding up a coalition of willing partners to help contain and push back against China. Beijing was the main topic of Pompeo’s trip earlier this week to the U.K. and Denmark, and he’s mentioned China on nearly every stop he’s made in the last year.
Domestic critics from both sides of the aisle have argued that the administration’s aggressive approach will only antagonize China and ignores the benefits of working together over the past 50 years — in the fight against terrorism, after the 2008 global financial crisis, and in containing North Korea’s nuclear threat.
“I suspect that China has concluded that, regardless of the administration, the U.S. cannot accept China’s rise and it will seek to constrain China regardless of administration,” former World Bank President Robert Zoellick told a briefing of the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this week. “For the long term, the United States would be very foolish to cut itself off from the world’s talent, including China.”
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