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U.S. and China drop the pretense: It's us vs. them

The Trumps and the Xis during Trump's Nov. 2017 visit to Beijing. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Vice President Mike Pence today accused China of using its military, spies, economic power and propaganda prowess to undermine the U.S. around the world and influence its domestic politics. The U.S. had long turned a blind eye, Pence said, “but those days are over.”

Why it matters: Pence made headlines by declaring that China “wants a different American President,” and by repeating the still-unsubstantiated claim that Beijing is meddling in the midterms. But his underlying message echoes a growing consensus among China watchers: we're entering a new era of U.S.-China relations, driven by competition and confrontation.

  • What to watch: The Trump administration is planning an "administration-wide" offensive against China, Axios' Jonathan Swan reports. This is just the beginning.

Axios China writer Bill Bishop emails his thoughts on how Beijing will view the speech:

“I have no doubt this will just be seen as more evidence to support the belief that Xi and his team have that we are in a new era of U.S.-China relations where the U.S. is determined to keep China down. They did not fully believe this even a few months ago but now they seem to have fully bought into the idea that the trade war is just one dimension of a growing adversarial relationship and conflict across every dimension. The gloves on both sides are not yet off, but we should prepare for them to come off.”

Chris Johnson, a former CIA China analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, discussed what he describes as the “pronounced groundshift in Washington about how China is viewed” on this week’s Intelligence Matters podcast with Michael Morell. His key points:

  1. Xi Jinping has exploded the flawed Washington consensus that “they’re going to become more like us… to make the system more open, more transparent.”
  2. When tensions rose in the past, the “highly complementary” economic relationship balanced things out. Now, “the economic relationship is turning competitive. China needs to go exactly where we need to go for their future economic benefit and competitiveness” and wants to dominate the industries of the future.

His advice: Sort out the trade war and turn to the bigger challenge — long-term technological and economic competition — without obsessing over China’s influence operations.

“We have a limited amount of things we can focus on at any one time, and I worry that we’re going to squander those scarce resources chasing ghosts because we have a playbook for that from the Cold War. It’s familiar to us. This technology-economy challenge is new to us, we don’t have a playbook for that, it’s uncomfortable, and yet that’s where the challenge really lies.”

The bottom line: "The gears are starting to lock into place in both leadership’s minds that this is an implacable enemy, a global struggle for influence and maybe domination."

David Rennie, the Economist’s Beijing bureau chief, writes in his latest column that America's China policy "has long whiffed of hypocrisy,” but honesty poses dangers of its own.

  • “Politicians mumbled about welcoming China’s rise when they meant that they did not know how to stop it. ... The two countries’ relations are long overdue a bracing dose of honesty. But Trump’s preferred form of candor —an amoral, might-makes-right cynicism — may be the least help of all.”
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