Mike Pence hits out at China over election meddling

Seven Russian nationals charged with hacking nuclear and anti-doping facilities

US vice president Mike Pence laid out allegations of Chinese election interference in a harshly worded speech on Thursday. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

US vice president Mike Pence laid out allegations of Chinese election interference in a harshly worded speech on Thursday. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

 

The Trump administration stepped up its criticism of China on Thursday as vice president Mike Pence accused Beijing of meddling in US elections.

Speaking a week after US president Donald Trump surprised the international community by accusing China of election interference during his address to the United Nations Security Council, Mr Pence said Beijing was actively working to influence the outcome of this year’s midterm elections.

“China has initiated an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 elections, and the environment leading into the 2020 presidential elections,” Mr Pence said in a speech to the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. He claimed China “wants a different American president”.

“Beijing has mobilised covert actors, front groups and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policies,” he said. “As a senior career member of our intelligence community recently told me, what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country.

“America had hoped that economic liberalisation would bring China into greater partnership with us and with the world. Instead, China has chosen economic aggression, which has in turn emboldened its growing military,” the US vice president said.

Heightened tensions

His comments come amid heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing over trade policy.

The United States announced new tariffs on $200 billion (€174 billion) worth of Chinese imports last month. This was in addition to previous tariffs introduced on $50 billion of Chinese goods.

Mr Trump has promised to reduce America’s huge trade deficit with China. But the claims of covert espionage and election meddling mark a new front in his administration’s battle with China.

As was the case with Mr Trump’s remarks to the UN Security Council last week, Mr Pence made scant reference to Russian interference in the election. When he did do so, he suggested that what Russia was doing “pales in comparison” to China’s actions.

His comments come as the US Department of Justice charged seven Russian nationals with hacking and “disinformation operations”. The alleged targets included nuclear company Westinghouse and a major anti-doping agency.

In a statement announcing the charges brought by a Pennsylvania court, the Department of Justice said that “beginning in or around December 2014 and continuing until at least May 2018, the conspiracy conducted persistent and sophisticated computer intrusions affecting US persons, corporate entities, international organisations, and their respective employees located around the world, based on their strategic interest to the Russian government”.

Co-ordinated clampdown

The charges were part of a co-ordinated clampdown by several Western countries against illegal Russian activity and were announced in conjunction with the Netherlands, Britain and Canada.

Four of the seven men indicted in the US were the same men who were expelled from the Netherlands. The other three had already been charged in July with hacking Democratic Party officials in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections.

A senior US official said the Russian effort to infiltrate Olympic athletes’ drug-test data was in retaliation for international attempts to expose Russian athletes’ doping. In 2016 Russian intelligence agencies hacked and posted confidential information about US athletes including Serena and Venus Williams.

While the World Anti-Doping Agency called out the Russian interference at the time, the latest development marks an attempt to criminally prosecute the hackers for their activity.

“We at the Department of Justice are not satisfied with merely exposing the conduct,” said Scott Brady, US attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, where a grand jury indicted the Russians. “We seek to arrest those who broke the law. We want to bring them to Pittsburgh. We want them to stand trial. And we want to put them in jail.”