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 and freedom of the seas.
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.
“China is meddling in America’s democracy,” Pence said, adding that the purpose was to “undermine support for the president, our agenda and our nation’s most cherished ideals.”
He said Beijing 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 had strong support.
The allegations 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 China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, gave to National Public Radio on Wednesday.
Cui said Beijing wanted to resolve the trade war with Washington through negotiations but that would required goodwill and good faith from both sides. He said this was currently not sufficient from the U.S. side, whose position has kept changing.
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.”
Trump has justified his tough trade policy against Beijing with accusations that China steals U.S. intellectual property, limits access to its own market and unfairly subsidize state-owned companies. 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 that “we will continue to take action until Beijing ends the theft of American intellectual property.”
He also urged Google (GOOGL.O) to immediately end development of its “Dragonfly” app that would make it easier to track someone’s internet searches and thus strengthen the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship efforts.
Google declined to comment on Pence’s statement. Instead, it reiterated 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 Spratley islands in the South China Sea.
“We will not be intimidated,” Pence said of the operation, which was 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 over the South China Sea islands and the waters around them.
Pence accused China of using its economic power to bully other 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 the Trump administration is considering sanctions against Chinese senior officials and companies suspected of involvement in alleged human rights abuses.
Last month, a U.N. rights panel said it had received credible reports that up to 1 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