Mike Pompeo: ‘The tide has turned’ on global perceptions of Chinese threat

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters following a meeting with members of the U.N. Security Council about Iran's alleged non-compliance with a nuclear deal and calling for the restoration of sanctions against Iran at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., August 20, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar/Pool

Years of US campaigning against China’s unfair economic practices and aggressive diplomacy, coupled with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, has “awakened” the world to the threat Beijing poses to international security and the global economy, according to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo, who spoke at an Atlantic Council Front Page event on September 15, has made building international support for pushing back against China’s state-owned capitalist model and regional aggression a focal point of his more than two years as secretary of state. The United States remains concerned about China’s use of lucrative investment deals and advanced technology to gain leverage over other countries and backdoors into critical national-security and intellectual-property information. But “nations [have] come to understand that when the Chinese show up and say that it’s free, nothing could be further from the truth,” Pompeo argued.

Here’s a rundown of what Pompeo said about the evolving Chinese threat, US diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, and the status of the administration’s other foreign-policy priorities:

The world has awakened to China

  • “The tide has turned”: Although China remains the largest trading partner for many of the United States’ most important allies around the world, Pompeo said that many allies are beginning to rethink their reliance on Beijing. Over the last few years, Pompeo and other US officials have been lobbying US allies to take the threat posed by China seriously. Pompeo maintained that the United States has been advising these partners “not coercively, not threateningly, just [with] data. Just facts about what the Chinese Communist Party is doing to their people and to their country.”
  • Chinese misdeeds pile up: The changing mindset among US partners, he said, has been driven by “their recognition of the coverup that took place with respect to the Chinese Virus,” as well as broken investment deals in Africa, and an understanding by Asia-Pacific allies that “attacks on their economic activity inside their own resource zones are things that they have the capacity to stand up to so long as America is prepared to do it alongside them.” Pompeo predicted that the growing awareness of the strings that come attached to dealings with China will mean that going forward “commercial activity, that engagement with China, will reflect those risks.”
  • What China really wants: Pompeo argued that when Chinese leader Xi Jinping “talks about national rejuvenation,” what he’s really talking about is “the Middle Kingdom. He’s talking about the central ideas of nationalism, Chinese nationalism, and the Marxist-Leninist underpinnings of his regime.” He maintained that China has a “desire for hegemony” that it’s primarily pursuing by exercising its “economic might.”
  • Progress on the technological front: Pompeo pointed out deepening concern among US allies about the use of Chinese technology, which US officials have long feared would allow Beijing to gain access to national-security information and trade secrets. The secretary of state credited the US decision to forbid American embassies from using networks that have “the capacity to flow information back to the Chinese Communist Party” for helping build awareness of these threats among allies. The need for an alternative to Chinese technology has prompted the United States to start “building [alternative] systems out with our allies and friends—with the Australians, with the Japanese, with the South Koreans, with the Indians—each of whom has come to have a shared understanding of the threat,” Pompeo said.
  • A 5G alternative? When Pompeo took over as secretary of state, he said he was “very distressed to find the gap between [the Chinese telecommunications company] Huawei and American technology with respect to 5G, or for that matter Western technology.” But in the last couple of years, Western companies like Ericsson and Nokia have begun to enter the 5G game, leading Pompeo to be “confident that there will be cost-effective deliverables from Western-trusted vendors that can deliver the same services or better services at comparative costs.” While he conceded that these products will” never match” Chinese options on cost due to the support Huawei receives from the Chinese government, Pompeo believes that US partners and allies will prefer the safer option.

Watch the full event with Secretary Pompeo:

US is ready to meet the China challenge

  • Growing understanding at home: Perceptions of China have also changed among the US populace, Pompeo added. US business leaders, he explained “understand now much more clearly the political risks associated with operating inside a country dominated and controlled by a single party: the Chinese Communist Party.” This growing awareness of the Chinese threat is important, Pompeo stressed, as “the most important ally to have on this is the American people. The American people need to fundamentally understand the threat that is posed on them.”
  • What success against China looks like: Pompeo explained that the United States’ goal in pushing back against China is “to ensure that the rules-based system that has benefitted not only the United States of America but freedom-loving peoples all around the world is the dominant force for the next century,” and not a system run by “authoritarian regimes, not by those who want to have vassal states under their economic thumb.” He added that this vision is exactly what Beijing is “trying to undermine. It’s what the Chinese Communist Party says. We should take them at their word.”
  • US is not declining: Pompeo also rejected the idea that the future will bring a “conflict between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party because the United States is a declining nation,” arguing that this notion “misunderstands American tradition; it misunderstands who we are as Americans.” Rather than confronting China out of weakness, Pompeo argued, the United States is operating from a position of strength: “We are not a declining nation.”

“Recognizing the reality” in the Middle East

  • Focus on Iran, not Israel-Palestine: Just days after Bahrain became the second Arab Gulf country to recognize the state of Israel, Pompeo said the US push to bring Israel and Gulf partners closer was driven by the Trump administration’s conviction that “the primary destabilizing force in the Middle East was not the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians but was rather the threat posed by the extraterritorial ambitions of the clerical regime in Iran.” While the breakthroughs may appear to have materialized suddenly, with the United Arab Emirates’ recognition coming in August, Pompeo maintained that the successes are a result of “a coalition that has been in the works for three-plus years.”
  • Palestinians should not prevent rapprochement: Pompeo argued that the Trump administration’s campaign to bring together Israel and the UAE and Bahrain shows the limits of the previous US approach, which “gave the Palestinians a veto right” over Arab diplomacy and “prevented any Arab nation from engaging with the most important democracy in the Middle East.” He noted the Gulf states’ refusal to grant a Palestinian request to condemn the UAE’s recognition of Israel as a sign that Arab nations have changed their strategic approach.
  • Reported threat to US ambassador is a standard Iranian tactic: While Pompeo did not directly comment on reports that Iran has been considering plans to assassinate the US ambassador to South Africa as retaliation for the January killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, he dismissed claims that US actions have prompted Iranian aggression. “The Iranians did not [historically] need an action by the United States to conduct assassination campaigns around the world,” he said. “This has been their model for forty years.”

The state of diplomatic pushes in Afghanistan, North Korea, and Europe

  • Drawdown developments in Afghanistan: Pompeo reported that he was in Doha over the weekend of September 12 as intra-Afghan negotiations began there in an attempt to bring the two-decades-long conflict to an end. As the United States continues to draw down its presence in the country, Pompeo noted that “fewer than 200 al-Qaeda [operatives are] left in Afghanistan today” and “we are now delivering a set of outcomes that will reduce the cost in blood from our American servicemen and women, in treasure from the American taxpayer, and risk to the United States of America.”
  • Quiet work in North Korea: While the Trump administration has so far been unable to achieve a breakthrough in nuclear negotiations with the Kim Jong-un regime in North Korea, Pompeo reported that “there is still lots of work going on between ourselves, our allies in the region— the Japanese, the South Koreans—and even efforts with the North Koreans to come to understand where there may be opportunity as time goes on.”
  • Assistance to European allies: As concern grows about Russian military aggression on NATO’s eastern flank and its support for embattled Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Pompeo said the United States continues to stand with its NATO allies. “We have offered up a billion dollars of support for the Three Seas Initiative,” Pompeo said, referring to a major international project to build north-south infrastructure between the Central and Eastern European countries bordering the Black, Baltic, and Adriatic seas, in addition to “defense support too through our extended readiness efforts through rotational forces operating” in exposed regions such as the Baltic states.

David A. Wemer is associate director, editorial at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.

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