Mike Pence, US vice-president, has condemned “empire and aggression” in Asia in a veiled swipe at China’s growing influence across the region, fuelling tensions ahead of a meeting between the two countries’ leaders at the G20 summit later this month The rhetoric marks one of Washington’s strongest attacks on Beijing’s growing sway in the region, and comes amid a trade war that has seen the world’s two biggest economies slap duties on more than $350bn worth of trade, rattling global financial markets.
“We all agree that empire and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific,” Mr Pence told a gathering of Asian leaders at the Asean summit in Singapore. “In all that we do, the United States seeks collaboration, not control. And we are proud to call Asean our strategic partner.”
The US delegation has used the Singapore meetings to reassert its commitment to Asean — the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — from which the White House seeks support to push back against Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and to urge North Korea towards denuclearisation.
Mr Pence’s speech highlighted the tensions dominating Sino-US relations ahead of a key meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Xi in Buenos Aires later this month, the scheduling of which had signalled a potential breakthrough in the countries’ escalating trade dispute.
Wang Qishan, Chinese vice-president and close confidant of Mr Xi, last week said that Beijing was ready to talk with Washington to resolve the trade dispute, while the US and China held high-level talks in Washington that included a meeting between John Bolton, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, and Yang Jiechi, a Chinese state councillor with responsibility for foreign affairs.
The stakes of the meeting in Argentina are high. These “significant” talks will cover a wide range of issues including trade and “will help give [the two presidents’] senior advisers guidance as to how to proceed going forward,” Mr Bolton told journalists at the Asean summit. If no deal is reached, the most likely scenario is that the tariff rate on most of the $250bn of targeted Chinese exports to the US will rise from 10 per cent to 25 per cent in January.
Mr Trump could then proceed to what US officials describe as phase three of the trade confrontation with Beijing, imposing tariffs on all US imports from China. Mr Pence on Thursday said that the US’s vision of the Indo-Pacific “excludes no nation. It only requires that every nation treat their neighbours with respect, that they respect the sovereignty of our nations and the international rules of order.”
Washington has accused China of military intimidation and economic coercion of other countries in the region. It argues that Beijing’s militarisation of the South China Sea has effectively robbed rival claimants of fair access. Washington also says that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the foreign policy framework that builds Chinese influence through massive infrastructure projects, forces less powerful countries into dangerous dependence.
At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Papua New Guinea this weekend, Mr Pence is due to unveil details of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, aimed at providing an alternative to China’s BRI.
The US plan “stands in sharp contrast to the dangerous debt diplomacy that China has been engaging in throughout the region and has led several countries . . . to have serious debt problems from accepting loans that are not transparent”, a senior US administration official told reporters in Singapore.