US vice-president Mike Pence on Friday called off a planned China speech that had been cast as a sequel to a blistering broadside he delivered in October to avoid exacerbating tensions with Beijing before summit talks next week, a White House official said.
The decision to put off the Monday speech came ahead of what could be a pivotal meeting on the US-China trade war between US president Donald Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, next week.
The two nations have slapped tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of each other’s goods, and the Trump-Xi meeting is aimed at discussing whether a further escalation can be avoided.
‘There is room for progress, and even if incremental, we didn’t want to step on that potential,’ a White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity about why the speech was called off.
Trump and Xi spoke by phone on Tuesday about the summit and formally agreed to meet to talk about the trade war.
‘Following the positive conversation with President Xi, the president and the (vice-president) thought it would be more appropriate to give the speech after the G20,’ the official said.
Pence had shocked China watchers and upset Beijing with a fierce speech in October in which he laid out a litany of complaints, chastising China for building ‘an unparalleled surveillance state’ and government-run camps in the Xinjiang region where Muslim Uighurs ‘endure around-the-clock brainwashing.’
The decision to postpone the speech did not come as a complete surprise. There were rumours in Washington for weeks that Pence would soften the tone of his follow-up address, or cancel it altogether. White House officials had repeatedly said plans had not changed, though they were tight-lipped about the details.
While Pence held his fire, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo on Friday highlighted Chinese abuses in announcing the release of the State Department’s 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom.
Pompeo told reporters the department had added a special section to the report ‘in an effort to document the staggering scope of religious freedom abuses in Xinjiang.’
While talking about sensitive issues may have risked casting a chill over Trump’s meeting with Xi, postponing the Pence speech could embolden Beijing, said Ely Ratner, a former national security adviser to former vice-president Joe Biden.
‘It sends a terrible message to China that America won’t stand firm, that everything is negotiable with President Trump, even core US values and interests,’ said Ratner, now at the Centre for a New American Security.
Pence aides first announced he would give another speech on China on May 29, raising concerns in China and the US business community that tough rhetoric on human rights and other issues could damage chances for a trade war detente.
The timing was also sensitive after recent mass demonstrations in Hong Kong and the June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Pompeo drew an angry response from China for a statement on the Tiananmen anniversary, and Beijing has told Washington to stay out of the Hong Kong issue.
As well as seeking a resolution to the trade issue, the United States has been looking to China to step up pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, a major foreign policy issue for Trump.
Xi visited North Korea for the first time this week and said the world hoped for successful US-North Korea talks, which have stalled since a failed summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in February.