Late last month, Mike Pence was gearing up for another aggressively hawkish foreign policy speech.
If most vice presidents are forgettable, Pence has been especially so. In public, Pence is distinguishable from a storefront mannequin only because he occasionally smiles and sometimes talks. He could easily be an animatron.
But Pence is a decent choice if what you want is an assertive (albeit wholly generic) exposition on what other countries are doing wrong and how the US isn’t going to stand for it anymore. To be clear, Mike’s speeches never go over well (with anyone), but given Trump’s difficulties with reading off a teleprompter and penchant for non sequiturs, sometimes Pence is preferable when it comes to foreign policy. You don’t want somebody going off the rails to brag about their electoral college margin in the middle of talking about human rights.
On May 30, while Mike was visiting Justin Trudeau in Canada, multiple reports indicated the vice president was preparing a speech to mark the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.
Two things were immediately clear. First, Beijing would be furious. Second, the speech would lay the groundwork for the rumored blacklisting of Hikvision and other Chinese surveillance firms. The Huawei-style ban, if it ever happens, will be predicated on “human rights” concerns and Pence’s speech would have helped make the case.
Mike Pompeo had some harsh words for China in and around the Tiananmen Square anniversary, and Beijing wasn’t amused. But Pence never gave his speech. Now we know why.
“Mike Pence was set to deliver a speech criticizing China’s human rights record on June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre — until Donald Trump stepped in”, Bloomberg reports, citing “several” people familiar with the matter.
Unsurprisingly, Trump was worried that Pence’s speech could “upset” China ahead of the hotly-anticipated meeting with President Xi at the G20.
Sure enough, Bloomberg also confirms that Pence would have “previewed” the Hikvision sanctions in his remarks. In addition to pushing back the speech, Trump delayed the planned blacklisting of Chinese surveillance companies, the sources said.
This underscores the notion that the administration cares nothing about the plight of the Uighurs. Rather, the “human rights” cover story is merely an excuse to justify putting further economic pressure on Beijing as part of a sweeping effort to stymie China’s global ambitions. It also suggests Trump is finding it increasingly difficult to justify two competing narratives, one of which paints China as a threat to US national security, while the other tells a tale of a “great friendship” between two strongman leaders.
“The president didn’t want the speech or the sanctions on surveillance companies to complicate talks about a potentially pivotal meeting with Xi at the G-20 [as] Trump hopes the meeting will get trade talks back on track”, Bloomberg goes on to write, adding that there are still “staff-level disputes over the content of the speech”.
Apparently, Mike’s big moment has been rescheduled for June 24. It goes without saying that it probably needs to be pushed back again if Trump really wants to avoid irritating Xi ahead of their prospective meeting. China, sources say, is inclined to view the delay in Pence’s speech and the sanctions on Hikvision as a “good-faith move”.
Although the article says both Beijing and some companies looking to avert further escalations in the trade war have looked to Pence as an “interlocutor”, it’s by no means clear that Mike is your guy. After all, we’re talking about the same Mike who blew up APEC in November.