Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday accused China of military aggression, commercial theft and rising human rights violations as he cast the Asian power as a villain bent on interfering in upcoming USA elections. The comments echoed those by President Donald Trump recently.
The goal, according to the vice president, is "an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion" in the elections this year and again in 2020 when Mr. Trump is up for re-election.
China hit back furiously on Friday, branding Pence's accusation "ridiculous".
Li Hak-yin, a researcher on China's foreign policy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the speech marked an "impasse" in China-US relations, "but neither side will willingly walk into a new cold war".
The Trump administration particularly takes issue with China's tactic of imposing tariffs on products produced by some of the USA president's key supporters, such as farmers in the midwestern United States.
"It is very ridiculous for the United States side to stigmatise its normal exchanges and cooperation with China as China interfering in its internal affairs and elections", Hua said. "The global community already knows fully well who wantonly infringes upon others' sovereignty, interferes in others' internal affairs and undermines others' interests".
Pence also assailed China over its actions in the South China Sea, where the USA has criticized the Chinese government for building military bases on reclaimed reefs.
But his statements on the November US elections were at the forefront of his speech.
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"To that end, Beijing has mobilized covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets to shift Americans' perception of Chinese policies", Pence said. He says an intelligence official told him that what "the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country".
It was Axios, in fact, which last month reported that the White House had "secret anti-China plans" that, based on administration sources, would be launched in the weeks ahead.
-Senior Chinese officials have tried to influence business leaders to condemn US trade actions, "leveraging their desire to maintain their operations in China".
Pence followed that up, saying intelligence assessments found that China is targeting USA state and local governments as well as officials to exploit any divisions between federal and local levels on policy. But "my understanding is that we are not close to launching a search product in China, and whether we eventually could or would remains unclear", he said.
"China's aggression was on display this week", he said, referring to a risky encounter between the People's Liberation Army Navy destroyer Lanzhou and the U.S. destroyer USS Decatur in the hotly-contested South China Sea Sunday.
The report deems China's control of rare earth metals and strategically important technologies like printed circuit boards to be a growing risk to the United States defence industry, and calls for the United States to step up investment in particular industries to mitigate China's influence over the supply of strategic products.
Analysts with the Eurasia Group consultancy noted the allegations of Chinese meddling are largely unsubstantiated and could allow Trump to distract from the special counsel's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. They also said it was the first time a senior USA official had delivered such a "broadside" against China on an array of issues.
Pence was to deliver an address at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, which is likely to increase tensions between the USA and China beyond trade disputes.