China angrily denounced on Friday renewed US allegations that it was interfering in upcoming American midterm elections.
In a wide-ranging speech delivered on Thursday night, US Vice President Mike Pence said Beijing was meddling in the vote to counter tough trade policies against China. The comments echoed those by President Donald Trump recently.
Pence said Beijing’s actions add up to a simple message: “China wants a different American president.”
China hit back furiously on Friday, branding Pence’s accusation “ridiculous”.
Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, said Beijing objected to Pence’s “groundless” allegations and urged the United States to stop hurting ties between the two superpowers.
“This is nothing but speaking on hearsay evidence, confusing right and wrong and creating something out of thin air,” Hua said in a strongly worded statement.
She said China was a “builder of world peace” with no interest in meddling in US elections.
“It is very ridiculous for the US side to stigmatise its normal exchanges and cooperation with China as China interfering in its internal affairs and elections,” Hua said.
“The international community has already known fully well who wantonly infringes upon others’ sovereignty, interferes in others’ internal affairs and undermines others’ interests.”
Relations between the world’s two largest economies have plummeted in recent weeks with Trump placing $250bn in tariffs on Chinese goods, in part over charges that Beijing forces US companies to hand over technological know-how. China responded with $60bn in tariffs on American products.
Pence also denounced China’s manoeuvres in the South China Sea, its oppression of Christians, Muslims and other religious adherents as well as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature infrastructure and foreign policy initiative.
But his statements on the November US elections were at the forefront of his speech.
“Beijing has mobilised covert actors, front groups and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policies,” he said.
“What the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country and the American people deserve to know. China wants to turn these voters against our administration.”
The unusually expansive and aggressive criticism of Beijing by a senior US official indicated that Washington could be preparing to take a more confrontational approach with China on issues beyond the trade dispute.
Pence also accused Beijing of showing its “aggression” when a Chinese navy vessel recently sailed in the dispute-ridden South China Sea near the USS Decatur destroyer which, according to US officials, had to make a quick detour to avoid a collision.
“Despite such reckless harassment, the United States Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand,” Pence said.
“We will not be intimidated; we will not stand down.”
China has maintained a calm tone as US language escalates. China’s Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai – in an interview with National Public Radio aired shortly before Pence’s address – said there was a “much larger need for cooperation” than competition with Washington.
‘Broadside’ against China
Analysts with the Eurasia Group consultancy noted that 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 US official had delivered such a “broadside” against China on an array of issues.
“The more open tone of confrontation from Pence will strengthen the perception in China that the ultimate US objective in the [trade] dispute is to contain China’s rise,” the group’s analysts led by Asia director, Michael Hirson, wrote.
The vice president, a favourite of conservative US Christians, also criticised China on human rights, voicing disappointment that rising prosperity has not led to reforms.
China “has taken a sharp U-turn toward control and oppression”, Pence said. “A new wave of persecution is crashing down on Chinese Christians, Buddhists and Muslims.”
Pence’s sharply worded address comes days before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to visit China on a trip focused on nuclear diplomacy with North Korea – an area in which the US still seeks Beijing’s cooperation.