Mike Pence, the US vice-president, has chided China for becoming “even more aggressive and destabilising” over the past year and singled out Nike as he criticised corporate America for complicity with Beijing.
In a long-awaited speech at the Wilson Center, a think-tank in the US capital, Mr Pence on Thursday insisted that Washington was not seeking confrontation with China or a decoupling of the world’s largest economies. But he attacked China for slashing “rights and liberties” in Hong Kong, building a “surveillance state unlike anything the world has ever seen”, continuing to “aid and abet the theft of our intellectual property” and pursuing military expansionism.
He also criticised US multinational companies for kowtowing to Chinese officials, as they sought access to the Chinese market’s customers and supply chains. He specifically singled out Nike, the shoe company, for “checking its social conscience at the door” when it removed Houston Rockets merchandise from its shelves after the NBA basketball team’s general manager tweeted in support of protesters in Hong Kong.
As for the NBA itself, Mr Pence said: “In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime.”
“A progressive corporate culture that wilfully ignores the abuse of human rights is not progressive — it’s repressive,” he said.
Yet even as Mr Pence listed US grievances with Beijing, he balanced the bluster with more conciliatory language. “The United States does not seek confrontation with China. We seek a level playing field, open markets, fair trade and a respect for our values,” he said.
Mr Pence’s speech comes at a delicate moment in US-China trade relations, as top officials attempt to finalise a limited deal to ease trade tensions between the countries so that it can be signed next month by Donald Trump, the US president, and Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart. Mr Pence said that Mr Trump remained “optimistic” that a deal could be reached.
“America is reaching out our hand to China and we hope that soon Beijing will reach back, this time with deeds not words, and with renewed respect for America,” the vice-president said.
Although China has agreed to increase its purchases of US agricultural goods, it has so far resisted any major concessions to overhaul its economic model by curbing its use of industrial subsidies, rein in cybertheft or entrench the equal treatment of US investors with domestic competitors.
Meanwhile, the US has imposed tariffs on $360bn of Chinese imports, and is threatening to add levies on a further $156bn of goods on December 15 unless a settlement to the trade dispute is reached.
With China hawks in Washington growing concerned that Mr Trump may stop at a minor deal with Beijing based on agricultural goods, Mr Pence suggested the administration would seek to maintain pressure on China about the deeper structural concerns. He said Mr Trump was committed to a “fundamental restructuring” of the relationship and would “stay the course”.
The vice-president’s speech had been initially been planned for June 4, on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests in China, but was delayed to avoid throwing a wrench into the trade negotiations.
Even as US and Chinese officials have moved to de-escalate trade tensions in recent weeks, Washington has continued to take or consider actions that have irked Beijing. Among them are a move to blacklist Chinese technology companies involved in surveillance and human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, which means US companies need a special government licence to sell to them.
The US is also considering steps to limit Chinese access to US capital markets. Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative, and Steven Mnuchin, the US Treasury secretary, have been trying to separate those issues from the trade negotiations, but it is unclear if Beijing will be able to ignore them.