Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

In a speech about America's biggest adversary on Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence saved some of his sharpest words for U.S. companies.

What he's saying: The VP steered clear of the uber-hawkish wing of the Trump administration, saying the U.S. does not want to "decouple" with China and "does not seek open confrontation."

  • But, he expressed full support for Chinese Christians and Uighurs, defended pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, and slammed the NBA and Nike for muzzling free speech to do business with China.

The big picture: Although Pence emphasized that the U.S. wants to engage with China, not fight it, he laid out a long list of examples of its bad behavior.

  • Intellectual property theft.
  • Chinese fentanyl in the American opioid crisis.
  • Chinese export of surveillance technologies.
  • The global influence operations under the Belt and Road Initiative.

Why it matters: With its massive market of consumers and leverage against the U.S. in the trade war, China is increasingly difficult for some American politicians and companies to criticize.

  • Pence said the NBA is "siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech ... acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime."
  • “Nike promotes itself as a so-called social-justice champion, but when it comes to Hong Kong, it prefers checking its social conscience at the door,” he said.

Yes, but: In 2017, the VP walked out of an NFL game after players exercised those same rights to free expression by taking a knee during the national anthem.

Go deeper: How businesses are silenced by China, Russia and Saudi Arabia

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