Pompeo calls for an end to ‘blind engagement’ with China

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has advocated an end to “blind engagement” with China and reprimanded allies for failing to prevent the prospect of “a Chinese century”, just days after the Trump administration took a historic decision to close down a Chinese consulate in the US.

In a speech given at the family home of former president Richard Nixon — the US president whose 1972 visit to China ushered in a historic thaw in relations — Mr Pompeo said on Thursday that 50 years of engagement had failed.

He called on the free world to join Washington in making an about-turn to “rewrite the imbalances that have grown over decades”.

“If we don’t act now, ultimately, the [Chinese Communist party] will erode our freedoms and subvert the rules-based order that our free societies have worked so hard to build,” he said, adding countries faced a choice “between freedom and tyranny”.

The Trump administration is treading an increasingly hard line against China on topics from trade to military ambitions, accusing it of wanting to establish “its own maritime empire”. This week, the US gave the Chinese consulate in Houston 72 hours to close down, citing concerns over espionage and triggering a promise of retaliation from Beijing.

But Mr Pompeo reserved some of his most trenchant criticism for the same allies he urged to pressure China.

“It’s difficult for some small countries, being picked off, [they] simply don’t have the ability or the courage to stand with us for the moment,” said Mr Pompeo. He said one Nato ally would not stand up for freedom in Hong Kong “because they fear Beijing will restrict access to China’s market”. 

Mr Pompeo did not name the ally, but Germany had earned Washington’s ire after refusing to back a push to impose sanctions against China following Beijing’s imposition of a sweeping new security law on Hong Kong.

On Thursday, Mr Pompeo argued a containment strategy would not work because China was deeply embedded in the global economy. He instead advocated “true candour” but warned: “Beijing is more dependent on us than we are on them.”

Short on prescriptive policy detail, Mr Pompeo’s speech had the feeling of a popular campaign speech at times, not least when the top US diplomat urged the world not to “bend the knee” to the communist party, an act of submission made popular in the Game of Thrones television series, and quoted Bible Scripture.

“Maybe it’s time for a new grouping of like-minded nations . . . a new alliance of democracies . . . To quote Scripture, I ask is ‘our spirit willing but our flesh weak?’”

Thomas Wright, an expert in US transatlantic policy at the Brookings Institution, said it was “absurd” for the US to claim to represent the free world given President Donald Trump “doesn’t care about democracy, human rights or freedom overseas”.

“The Trump administration repeatedly rejected requests from Europe to work together on China until a few weeks ago,” he said. “It’s a bit rich for him to now blame allies for not doing enough.”