Hong Kong (CNN) US Vice President Mike Pence is set to ramp-up Washington’s criticism of Beijing in a speech Thursday, accusing China of aggressive moves against US military forces in the South China Sea, and trying to undermine President Donald Trump.
Pence’s speech, to be delivered at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, is likely to inflame tensions between the United States and China, already at their lowest point in years following a lengthy trade dispute and allegations of political interference.
“To put it bluntly, President Trump’s leadership is working; China wants a different American President,” Pence will say, according to excerpts of his speech seen by CNN.
The intervention by the Vice President marks a significant broadening in the rhetoric used by the Trump administration to confront China, linking issues around military, trade and domestic politics.
The speech is set to come just days after a Chinese military vessel nearly collided with a US Navy ship in the waters around the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Pence will describe the encounter in which a Chinese naval vessel came within 45 yards (41 meters) of the USS Decatur as “reckless harassment,” and add that 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; we will not stand down.”
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian defended the maneuver on Tuesday, accusing the US of threatening China’s sovereignty and safety by repeatedly sending warships to disputed areas of the South China Sea.
“The Chinese military will resolutely perform its defense duties and continue to take all necessary measures to safeguard our sovereignty and the regional peace and stability,” Wu said.
Russia’s interference ‘pales in comparison’
Thursday’s planned speech comes a week after President Donald Trump stood in front of world leaders at the UN and accused Beijing of meddling in US politics.
Citing US intelligence agencies, Pence is expected to claim that Russia’s actions in the US “pale in comparison” to Beijing’s interference.
“Beijing has mobilized covert actors, front groups and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policies,” Pence will say.
The vice president will cite a Chinese government document, called “Propaganda and Censorship Notice,” which he will claim lays out a strategy aimed at “splitting apart different domestic groups in the United States.”
Among the institutions targeted for Chinese Communist Party coercion, according to the vice president, are “businesses, movie studios, universities, think tanks, scholars (and) journalists.”
“Beijing is employing a whole-of-government approach to advance its influence and benefit its interests. It’s employing this power in more proactive and coercive ways to interfere in the domestic policies and politics of the United States,” Pence will say on Thursday.
According to the excerpts, Pence will also take a forceful line on Taiwan, the self-ruled island which Beijing views as part of its territory, saying that “while our administration will continue to respect our One China Policy… Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people.”
Under the “One China Policy,” Washington officially recognized Beijing and removed its embassy from Taiwan, though it continues to regard the sovereignty status of the island as unresolved.
Pence will condemn efforts by Beijing to pressure allies of Taipei to sever their ties and embrace China, which he will say “threaten the stability of the Taiwan Strait.”
The focus on Taiwan follows plans by the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet to stage a global show of force, in an apparent demonstration of US readiness to deter and counter antagonistic Chinese military actions.
The plan, which was relayed to CNN by several US defense officials, suggests sailing ships and flying aircraft near Chinese-controlled waters in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
China’s ‘debt diplomacy’
Pence’s remarks won’t just focus on the US-China relationship, but the ongoing battle for influence between the two countries on the global stage.
In his speech, the US vice president will repeat claims that Beijing is using billions of dollars in infrastructure loans to countries across the world to tie them to the Chinese government, in a manner termed “debt diplomacy.”
“The terms of those loans are opaque at best, and the benefits flow overwhelmingly to Beijing,” Pence will say in his remarks Thursday.
In particular, Pence references Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. It was commissioned by the local government with Chinese funds in 2010 but when Sri Lanka was unable to pay back their loans, a Chinese state-owned company took ownership.
But while some countries, such as Pakistan and Malaysia, are reconsidering their infrastructure loans from Beijing, other countries around the world remain grateful for the investment.