CHENGXIN PAN. Pence on China: reviving a neo-conservative Dream (Lowy Institute, 08.10.18)

Ever wondered who is now the culprit for many of the woes of the United States? Then look no further than a major speech delivered by US Vice President Mike Pence last week.

Given just days after the “leaked” photos showing close encounters between US and Chinese destroyers in the South China Sea as well as amidst an escalating trade war between Washington and Beijing, Pence’s speech points fingers squarely at China. Among other things, he accused Beijing of economic and military aggression against the US, political meddling in America’s democracy, debt-trap diplomacy targeting almost every corner of the globe, and intensified religious crackdowns at home.

This is arguably the most exhaustive – and certainly most “up-to-date” – denunciation of China from a top American leader since Beijing and Washington established diplomatic relations nearly four decades ago.

Pence managed to squeeze almost all the bits and pieces of the ‘China threat’ narrative into one single speech.

Yet despite this, Pence’s speech should come as no surprise to people who have been closely reading the changing mood of American discourse on China over the past few years. Until a decade ago, US discourses of China’s rise had always tended to oscillate between “China threat” and “China opportunity”, most of the time with the two mixed together in one way or another. But in the past decade and particularly since Xi Jinping’s presidency, the China narrative pendulum has slowly but surely swung towards the more “negative” paradigm, that is, China as a rising threat.

What is remarkable is that Pence managed to squeeze almost all the bits and pieces of the “China threat” narrative into one single speech.

So what do we make of it? For one thing, this speech outlines a clearer and more comprehensive China policy for the Trump administration, which so far has been seen as largely one-dimensional and trade-oriented. This new China policy is also characterised by increased assertiveness from Washington. To use Pence’s words: “We will not be intimidated; we will not stand down,” a refrain repeated several times throughout the speech.

More importantly, this comprehensive and assertive turn in China policy is likely to go down well on both sides of US politics. And for this reason alone, the speech needs to be taken seriously.

Even as some commentators fault it for lacking a well-articulated competitive strategy against the threat, most in the US do not question the accuracy of Pence’s accusations, which, after all, have been rehearsed through years of extensive Western media and academic coverage of China’s various sins. In fact, Pence’s attacks on China play into a mounting sense of frustration with China’s inability and unwillingness to fulfill American hope that:

freedom in China would expand in all forms – not just economically, but politically, with a newfound respect for classical liberal principles, private property, religious freedom, and the entire family of human rights.

Indeed, much to America’s horror, instead of reforming its own political system to America’s liking, Beijing, as Pence alleges, now seems to seek “regime change” of sorts in the US by “wanting a different American president”.

All this has the hallmark of the latest episode of a long love-hate drama in US-China history, which, according to the dominant American narrative, is one of a promising but ultimately ungrateful China biting “the hands that had fed and nurtured them, repaying a century of American benevolence with hatred and enmity, causing deep parental sorrow, arousing righteous anger and meriting just punishment”. If this quote ­– originally describing American bitterness at the “loss of China” following the Communist victory – sounds eerily familiar, then US-China relations may be entering another period of what I have called “international politics of disillusionment”.

This time, however, China is no longer the “inconsequential enemy” as it apparently was back in 1948. Yet to many neoconservatives, that is precisely why this policy change is welcome or indeed overdue: it will at last steer US foreign and security policy towards their familiar territory, revitalising US military strength and moral clarity against a worthy great power enemy, a new “Evil Empire” of sorts.

They fondly remember how well that battle ended for the US last time around, so over the years there has been a persistent temptation on the part of the neocons to try it out on China, bringing about the “end of history” through a repetition of it, as it were.

Though perhaps still early days, they might, just might, have gotten what they had wanted from Washington. This is what is most concerning about the Pence speech.

Chengxin Pan is Associate Professor of International Relations in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University, and a member of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation.

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