Mike Pompeo likens China threat to 'Frankenstein,' says engagement hasn't worked

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested Thursday the U.S. had created a "Frankenstein" by opening diplomatic and economic ties with China and called for a sharp break with decades of American policy first pioneered by the Nixon administration in the 1970s.

"President Nixon once said he feared he had created a 'Frankenstein' by opening the world to the Chinese Communist Party. And here we are," Pompeo said in a much-touted, hardline speech outlining a dark vision of China global ambitions.

"The old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won't get it done. We must not continue it," he said. 

Pompeo delivered the speech at the Nixon Library in California, and he was careful not to rebuke Nixon himself or the former president's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, who made a secret trip to China in 1971 before Nixon's own historic trip the following year.

Nixon's 1972 meeting with Mao Zedong led to formal relations between the U.S. and China after more than two decades of hostility. 

"The world was much different" in Nixon’s era," Pompeo said. "We imagined engagement with China would produce a future  with bright promise, comity and cooperation." 

"But today we're all ... wearing masks and watching the pandemic’s body count rise because the CCP failed in its promises to the world," the Trump administration's chief diplomat said, continuing with a laundry list of China's wrongdoing: repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, trade abuses, and an expanding "and more menacing" military.

As the United States grapples with rising cases of COVID-19 and job losses stemming from pandemic-related shutdowns, Trump and his aides have cast China as the villain behind the growing U.S. crisis.

Trump's critics – in Washington and Beijing – have accused the president of attacking China to distract from his own administration's failure to take the coronavirus threat seriously and respond to it adequately.

Jia Qingguo, a professor at Peking University's School of International Studies, said Trump and his advisers are trying to blame other countries for America's problems. 

"(Trump's) dwindling chance of re-election has contributed to the recent intensification of the Trump anti-China campaign," he said in a briefing hosted by the National Press Club on Thursday. "Trump appears to believe that the only way for him to get reelected is to provoke all-out confrontation with China." 

Pompeo is one of the Trump administration's most vocal hawks when it comes to China. In his remarks Thursday, he said Chinese president Xi Jinping "is a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology" and harbors a "decades-long desire for global hegemony" that threatens America's way of life. 

"If we don’t act now, ultimately the CCP will erode our freedoms and subvert the rules-based order that our societies have worked so hard to build. If we bend the knee now, our children’s children may be at the mercy of the CCP," he said ominously. 

But even as Pompeo slammed America's longstanding policy of engagement, he did not say the U.S. would break diplomatic ties with China.  

"To be clear, we’ll keep talking. But the conversations are different these days," he said.America's dealings with China should be based on "distrust and verify."

Since Nixon's policy of rapprochement, successive American presidents have grappled with a rising China – engaging with the country as a rival and competitor while maintaining diplomatic and economic ties.

President Donald Trump, right, talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017.

Pompeo's speech came after three other top advisers to President Donald Trump made similarly harsh remarks in recent weeks blasting China for its aggressive espionage efforts and its theft of American intellectual property.  

U.S.-Chinese tensions have escalated sharply in recent weeks amid the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing's decision to restrict freedoms in Hong Kong, and the ongoing trade tensions.

But this week, the Trump administration took hostilities to a new level when the U.S. notified Chinese officials on Tuesday it would have to close its Houston consulate within 72 hours, prompting an immediate threat of retaliation from China. Experts said that move was nearly unprecedented and signaled a sharp deterioration in US-China relations. 

On Thursday, Pompeo said the Houston facility was "a hub of spying and IP theft." He did not elaborate further, but he cast the Trump administration's increasingly aggressive confrontation with China in stark terms. 

Chinese officials have rejected that assertion and said the Houston facility was operating normally.

Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, described the U.S. action as an "unprecedented escalation" and said China would "react with firm countermeasures" if the United States does not revoke the decision.