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Pence Hits China on Rights, Signals Flexibility on Trade

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks on the future of the U.S. relationship with China at the Wilson Center in Washington, Oct. 24, 2019.

U.S. trade representatives reported progress Friday in the latest discussions with China on a comprehensive trade agreement.

"The two sides are close to finalizing some sections of the agreement," the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said in a statement.

The talks came a day after Vice President Mike Pence criticized China for its human rights record and flouting of international trade rules, but also suggested the Trump administration is willing to make some compromises of its own as it negotiates a possible end to the ongoing trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

With the trade war now in its second year, tensions between the two countries remain high. In remarks Thursday, the vice president ticked off a laundry list of U.S. concerns about Chinese behavior, from its suppression of the Uighur minority in its western Xinjiang Province, to attacks on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, to violation of international trade rules and more. He insisted that the two countries must work together toward a common future.

“People sometimes ask whether the Trump administration seeks to ‘de-couple’ from China,” Pence said. “The answer is a resounding ‘no.’ The United States seeks engagement with China and China’s engagement with the wider world, but engagement in a manner consistent with fairness, mutual respect, and the international rules of commerce.”

The speech, delivered at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, was a much-anticipated sequel to remarks the vice president delivered just over one year ago, which were widely interpreted as placing Washington on a new “Cold War” footing with Beijing. China’s foreign ministry issued a blistering response on Friday, saying the U.S. should look to its own domestic problems, like gun violence, rather that critiquing China, Reuters reported.

But with both countries’ economies showing the strains of a trade fight that is slowing growth worldwide, some saw signs of change in Pence’s remarks.

FILE - Chinese staffers adjust U.S. and Chinese flags before a session of negotiations between U.S. and Chinese trade representatives, at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, in Beijing, China, Feb. 14, 2019.
FILE - Chinese staffers adjust U.S. and Chinese flags before a session of negotiations between U.S. and Chinese trade representatives, at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, in Beijing, China, Feb. 14, 2019.

Lester Ross, partner-in-charge of the Beijing office of the U.S. law firm WilmerHale, said that Chinese authorities would likely look past much of the vice president’s rhetoric about human rights issues, which they view as standard U.S. boilerplate, to focus on more subtle elements of the remarks.

“They couldn’t have reasonably expected” the vice president to shy away from issues like China’s rampant human rights violations and its aggressive behavior in oceans off Southeast Asia, Ross said. However, he added, a close reading of the vice president’s remarks suggests that, far from provoking anger in Beijing, they are likely to be received as a positive sign.

The disavowal of a strategy of “decoupling” is particularly significant, Ross said, and will likely be interpreted in Beijing as a rare olive branch in a relationship marked by hostile rhetoric. President Trump, in the past, has repeatedly called for U.S. companies to move production facilities out of China entirely -- practically the definition of “de-coupling.”

Ross said that Beijing will also view positively Pence’s nod to the United States’ willingness to respect the “sovereignty” of other nations.

Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party-controlled Global Times newspaper on Friday wrote about the speech in a tone of wary hopefulness.

“The speech repeated criticisms made last year that included accusations of intellectual property theft, militarizing the South China Sea, religious persecution, and silencing freedom of speech. Pence also slandered China over Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang,” the paper noted.

However, it also found that the vice president “offered a positive attitude in reaching a trade deal with China and improving relations.”

The vice president’s speech comes amid hopeful signs of progress toward a resolution of at least some of trade disputes that have roiled relationships between the two countries.

China has recently issued draft rules for implementing a new law that would provide much greater protection to the intellectual property of companies doing business there. U.S. and Chinese negotiators are discussing a limited deal that would forestall additional U.S. sanctions on Chinese goods.

That would come in exchange for a large Chinese purchases of U.S. agricultural products, possible changes to Chinese policy with regard to the value of its currency, and an increased openness to U.S. financial firms doing business in China.

Trump has characterized the limited agreement as “Phase One” of a larger trade deal.

Whatever progress may be made in the coming days, though, the ruling Communist Party is warning that trade talks don’t signal a willingness to remake Chinese society in the image of a western democracy.

“China and the U.S. have different political systems,” the Global Times editorialized. “It means that it is impossible to change political foundation of China. However, China and the U.S. have many reasons to stick with peaceful co-existence and win-win cooperation.”