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Pence says US “will not back down” from China’s aggression in fiery speech

“This is the Trump administration’s ‘evil empire’ speech,” said a China expert.

Vice President Mike Pence blamed China for 2018 midterm interference during his speech at the Hudson Institute on October 4, 2018.
Vice President Mike Pence blamed China for 2018 midterm interference during his speech at the Hudson Institute on October 4, 2018.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Vice President Mike Pence just accused China of trying to influence the upcoming American elections in a speech reminiscent of how the United States used to speak of the Soviet Union.

At an event at the conservative Hudson Institute think tank in Washington on Thursday, the vice president used the opportunity to slam Beijing for many of its transgressions against the United States and around the world.

“China has initiated an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 elections, and the environment leading into the 2020 presidential elections,” he said. “China wants a different American president.”

Pence’s claim mostly stems from what China has done overtly, such as place its propaganda in newspapers like the Des Moines Register, and broadcast radio shows friendly to Beijing’s policies around the US.

But he cited no evidence that the China has tried to directly meddle in the US’s election system.

On Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told a conference organized by the Washington Post that “we currently have no indication that a foreign adversary intends to disrupt our election infrastructure.”

Pence, though, spent most the speech detailing the many ways China has angered the United States by:

Put together, the speech amounted to the United States naming and shaming China — specifically pitting America against a powerful country, like it did during the Cold War — but with little discussion of how the US planned to push back on Beijing.

“This is the Trump administration’s ‘evil empire’ speech,” Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said. “This looks to me like deliberate confrontation.”

Small chips, big hack

There’s no question that the Trump administration has a point: China has aggrieved America for decades and goes to great lengths to thwart the US government and American businesses.

Here’s just one example: Hours before Pence’s speech, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that Chinese spies infiltrated the networks of nearly 30 companies, including Apple, by installing extremely small chips in servers.

Some of those servers are also used by the Pentagon, according to the report.

It seems the spies placed the chips inside the server boards when they were still in production back in China, and somehow made these devices end up at their precise targets.

That’s a remarkable feat, the report noted:

[T]o actually accomplish a seeding attack would mean developing a deep understanding of a product’s design, manipulating components at the factory, and ensuring that the doctored devices made it through the global logistics chain to the desired location—a feat akin to throwing a stick in the Yangtze River upstream from Shanghai and ensuring that it washes ashore in Seattle.

As of now, it doesn’t appear that China obtained any customer data. Apple and other companies claimed to be affected in the report strongly deny that the chips were ever installed.

If true, it serves as a major example of the extreme measures China will take to spy on the US government and American companies. It’s part of the reason Washington has long criticized Beijing for its corporate espionage, and why the Trump administration has pushed back so forcefully, by imposing $200 billion in tariffs and stringent sanctions.

In September, three sources familiar with the Trump administration’s economic strategy toward China told me that the the White House has two main objectives in the trade war.

The first is to remove China from the center of the global supply chain. Imposing tariffs on Chinese products, some of which form parts in complicated items like automobiles, could prompt manufacturers to look elsewhere for those components.

That would seriously hurt China’s economy, as money would flow to other companies in other countries.

The second goal is to make multinational corporations wary about doing business in China. If large companies like South Korea’s Samsung or America’s Google decide it’s too expensive or too politically dangerous to operate in the country and choose to build plants elsewhere instead, that would also harm China’s economy.

Trump has shown a personal interest in that second objective, shaming US companies on Twitter for making products in China.

It’s possible that pressure from the Bloomberg report will prompt Apple to build their most sensitive materials outside of China.

How will the US respond?

So China does bad things, says Pence — but what will the US do about it outside of the trade war? The vice president didn’t really make that clear, Michael Fuchs, a top Asia official at the State Department from 2013 to 2016, told me after the speech.

“At a time when the threats posed by China are real, Pence and the Trump administration are painting an overly simplistic picture of China, which makes it difficult to craft a smart strategy to counter genuine challenges,” he continued.

Of course, the US is already making some efforts to counter Beijing, including conducting its own spying in the country and broadcasting its own messaging to persuade Chinese citizens that America isn’t so bad.

And China is likely bristling not only at the Pence speech, but also the spate of recent stories — like the Bloomberg piece and recent close encounter in the South China Sea — detailing Beijing’s antagonistic actions. China expert Bill Bishop tweeted on Thursday morning that the speech and the recent report together probably look like “a coordinated propaganda effort.”

That perception will make it harder — but not impossible — for the US to push back on China in all of the areas where the US wants to see change. Some experts are less optimistic the Trump administration’s adversarial approach toward China will work out in Washington’s favor.

“I’m not sure it makes us more competitive,” Glaser told me.