Vice President Pence to walk a tightrope in China speech amid trade deal hopes

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A year after the U.S. Vice President’s hawkish speech on China caused an uproar in Beijing, Mike Pence is expected to strike a gentler tone in a second policy address on the country Thursday, as hopes blossom for a partial trade deal with Beijing.

Pence, who frequently takes a tough line on China, could easily use the speech to harp on growing American frustration over Chinese treatment of democracy protesters in Hong Kong and Muslim minority Uighurs held in Chinese detention camps.

But with the speech coming just weeks before U.S. President Donald Trump attends a summit in Chile where he hopes to close a “phase one” trade deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Pence may be forced to stick to more dovish language.

Fears of antagonizing Beijing prompted the White House in June to postpone the speech ahead of a meeting between the leaders aimed at getting trade talks back on track.

The administration “bragged about how important the speech was going to be, then abandoned it in June, the last time President Trump thought he had a China trade deal,” said Derek Scissors, a China scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

The probable goal of the speech, Scissors said, is to preempt Congress from approving a raft of tough-on-China bills “by using strong language, but offering only watered-down versions of actions Congress is already considering,” he added.

Such a speech would contrast sharply with Pence’s track record on China. Aides had cast his postponed June speech as a sequel to a blistering broadside he delivered in October 2018.

At that time, Pence shocked China watchers by laying out a litany of complaints, chastising China for building “an unparalleled surveillance state” and for government-run camps in the Xinjiang region where Muslim Uighurs “endure around-the-clock brainwashing” just ahead of a major Asia-Pacific conference that he attended on behalf of Trump.

His comments laid the groundwork for U.S. authorities this month to include Chinese video surveillance firm Hikvision on a trade blacklist, punishing Beijing for its treatment of Muslim minorities and ratcheting up tensions ahead of trade talks.

Pence has also taken China to task over Hong Kong, urging authorities in August to respect the special administrative region’s laws and repeating Trump’s warning that it would be harder for Washington to make a trade deal with Beijing if there were violence in the former British colony.

Since then, lawmakers like Senate Republican Marco Rubio have slammed Chinese companies for boycotting the NBA after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey expressed solidarity with Hong Kong protesters.

That spat played out amid unexpected progress in U.S.-China trade talks to end a 15-month trade war that has roiled markets and damaged global growth. The United States launched the trade war over allegations of unfair trading practices such as theft of U.S. intellectual property and generous industrial subsidies at the expense of foreign competitors.

During a visit by Chinese Vice Premier Liu He this month, Trump outlined the first phase of a trade deal covering agriculture, currency and some aspects of intellectual property protections. U.S. officials said later agreements could address other issues.

The White House has been nearly silent about the tenor of Pence’s remarks, which he will deliver at a Wilson Center event, saying only that they will “reflect on the U.S.-China relationship over the past year and look at the future of our relationship.”

But many U.S.-China experts see a softer tone as probable.

“This may end up being one of the most anticlimactic firebrand speeches of all time,” said Scott Kennedy, a China trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Reporting by Alexandra Alper. Editing by Chris Sanders and Gerry Doyle

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