Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Yorba Linda, Calif.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Yorba Linda, Calif. AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool

With Cold War Language, Pompeo Defines Trump’s Plan for ‘Totalitarian’ China

In the fourth major China policy speech by administration leaders in the past month, Pompeo says the US can’t go back to the era of engagement.

In a major foreign policy speech on U.S.-China relations, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cast ratcheted-up tensions with Beijing in Cold War terms, announcing that Washington would seek to change Beijing’s behavior and stopping just short of calling for regime change. 

He described Beijing — and Chinese President Xi Jinping — as a generational threat to “free democracies around the world,” a totalitarian and hegemonic regime that must not be treated like a normal nation. Riffing on President Ronald Reagan’s famous “trust but verify” dictum about the Soviet Union, he said that when it comes to Beijing, the U.S. must “distrust and verify.” 

“Changing the CCP’s behavior cannot be the mission of the Chinese people alone. Free nations have to work to defend freedom,” Pompeo said. He went on to say that he had “faith” the United States could successfully force a change in Beijing’s behavior because it had done so before: with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

"If we bend the knee now, our children's children may be at the mercy of the Communist party,” Pompeo said. 

The particular rhetoric used by Pompeo, often invoking the decades-long conflict between the United States and the USSR, gave ammunition to analysts and politicians who have characterized the increasingly-tense relations between the two nations as a new Cold War. The term is controversial, in part because the United States and the Soviet Union had virtually no economic ties, while China is deeply integrated into the global economy. Some critics also fear that its use unnecessarily ramps up tensions even further. 

Speaking at the Nixon Library in California on Thursday, Pompeo emphasized that the Trump administration’s muscular approach to China “isn’t about containment,” instead characterizing it as a response to an unprecedented and complex challenge. He also sought to portray the administration’s approach as a new era of realpolitik, arguing that past leaders who preached “engagement” had ignored warnings of the malign intentions behind China’s actions. 

“We have to keep in mind that the CCP regime is a Marxist-Leninist regime. General Secretary Xi Jinping is a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology,” Pompeo said. “American can no longer ignore the fundamental political and ideological differences between our countries just as the CCP has never ignored them.” 

The speech was the fourth speeches on China policy by senior Trump administration officials. It follows the roll-out of a series of punitive measures, including sanctions, indictments, consulate closure, and an executive order rescinding Hong Kong’s special trading relationship with the United States over a new national security law in Beijing. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, Attorney General Bill Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray have all spoken in recent weeks, addressing the administration’s position on China’s trade practices, intellectual property theft, and other CCP conduct. Defense Secretary Mark Esper also spoke on China’s militarization of the South China Sea on Tuesday. 

U.S. relations with China have unquestionably soured, reaching their lowest point in decades as Trump has pressed China on trade and tariffs, and U.S. leaders have struggled to counter an increasingly assertive Beijing while still maintaining its trade relationship with the largest economy in the world based on purchasing power parity. (PPP is seen as a better comparison between nations than ranking based on nominal GDP, which doesn’t take into account inflation and the relative cost of local goods and services. The U.S. is still the largest economy based on nominal GDP; China is second-largest.) 

Pompeo and other Trump officials have carefully distinguished between the Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party, and on Thursday he argued that “our approach can’t just be about getting tough.” 

“We must also engage and empower the Chinese people, a dynamic and freedom loving people who are completely distinct from the Chinese Communist Party,” Pompeo said — another echo to U.S. efforts during the Cold War to inspire and foster Soviet citizens to internal rebellion. 

“That begins with in person diplomacy,” Pompeo added. 

But he rejected the prediction, laid out by some popular scholars, that war with China may become inevitable — or that an America in decline is destined to be eclipsed by China’s rise. 

“I reject the notion that we’re living in an age of inevitability, that some trap is preordained, that CCP supremacy is the future,” Pompeo said. “The free world is still winning, we just need to believe it and know it and be proud of it."