US Secretary of State signals Donald Trump is taking a harder line on China, blaming Beijing’s broken promises

Mark Magnier

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday accused Beijing of repeatedly failing to keep its promises during a speech that suggested the Trump administration will take a harder line with the Chinese government.

“What we are confronted with is a challenge from the Chinese Communist Party” that is “inconsistent with what they have promised,” Trump’s chief foreign adviser told a packed hall at Rice University in Houston. “I could go on.”

Asked whether Washington would respond with military force if China deployed troops in Hong Kong, Pompeo left the administration some wiggle room.

America’s top diplomat said he hoped China would honour its “one-country, two-systems” commitment as outlined in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, allowing freedom of speech, of the press and of association.

The senior Trump administration official said he hoped the situation could be resolved non-violently with “few injuries”.

“These situations are all highly factually dependent,” Pompeo said, adding that he would never rule out how Trump might respond to the protests in the city, which have become increasingly violent.

Pompeo has recently stepped up his criticism of China’s ruling party and said he would continue to do so in upcoming speeches.

He said Beijing has repeatedly failed to live up to its commitments or abide by international norms, ranging from introducing weapons into the South China Sea – despite President Xi Jinping’s pledge not to do so – to China’s gaming of global markets.

Beijing-Washington relations have deteriorated since the opening salvo in the now 16-month-old trade war that has hurt consumers and held global markets hostage.

A container ship sails by the business district in Qingdao in east China's Shandong province. Photo: AP

A series of tit-for-tat tariff hikes has targeted nearly a half trillion dollars in two-way trade, even as distrust has spread into the education, visa, investment and technology realms.

In his speech on Friday, Pompeo gave quick nods to the Chinese people’s natural desire to improve their lives and to the longevity of the 40-year China-US friendship. But the tone of his subsequent remarks directed at the Chinese government and system was tough and unrelenting.

China represents a huge challenge for Washington, Pompeo said, given its enormous size, deep connections with the US economy and authoritarian system.

Xi’s plan to tighten grip on Hong Kong would kill his Chinese dream

Global competition works when French, American or Chinese companies all have a chance to win on the basis of fair competition, he said. “That’s not what’s been going on.”

Instead, Chinese state-owned companies enjoy massive subsidies when competing against private foreign companies, even as China ensnares countries with loans and improperly acquires intellectual property, he said.

“They’ve stolen our stuff,” he said.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Pompeo’s tough rhetoric comes as the world’s two largest economies near an important deadline: Trump has threatened to levy tariffs on nearly US$200 billion in additional imports from China, starting on December 15.

Sensing that Trump is in a weaker position with his Midwestern base – farm bankruptcies are up 24 per cent, farm debt is at levels not seen since the 1980s and factory lay-offs are rising – while he attempts to cope with the distraction of impeachment hearings and the pressure of campaigning for the 2020 election, China has adopted its own tougher line in recent days.

China says US Congress body ‘full of prejudice’ over Hong Kong report

Beijing has wavered on whether a “phase one” trade deal announced by Trump last month is on track, roiling global markets. It also has stepped up calls for a complete rollback of all tariffs as a precondition for further talks and has shown little enthusiasm for a US meeting between the two leaders.

Sensing that Trump is in a weaker position with his base while he is distracted by impeachment hearings and the 2020 election, China has adopted its own tougher line in recent days. Photo: Washington Post

“China’s insistence that the US remove some current tariffs as part of phase one is testing Trump’s political resolve,” Michael Hirson, head of the China practice with Eurasia Group, wrote in a report.

“An added complication is that the two sides are having trouble bridging differences on China’s commitments to purchase US agricultural products, the part of the deal that matters most to Trump,” Hirson wrote.

Pompeo said Washington bears some responsibility for not challenging China earlier and for allowing the Asian country to increasingly flex its global economic and political muscles. The US is in a longer-term and necessary recalibration, extending well beyond the next six months or year, the secretary said.

“It’s important that we all see this for what it is,” Pompeo said. “It’s about articulating a series of facts going forward.”

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