Secretary of State Mike Pompeo escalated his criticism of China during a visit to Australia on Sunday, drawing a direct link between what he called one-sided trade deals and China’s ability to strengthen its military.
Mr. Pompeo, speaking in the commercial capital Sydney, said, “We were asleep at the switch” as China began to steal data, launch military exercises in the disputed South China Sea and saddle other countries with debt to increase its influence.
“Those are the kind of things that I think everyone needs to have their eyes wide open with respect to,” Mr. Pompeo said. “The United States certainly does.”
Australia is Mr. Pompeo’s second stop on an eight-day tour aimed at asserting the U.S. role as an Indo-Pacific power.
Earlier this week in Thailand, Mr. Pompeo similarly called out China’s unfair economic practices but didn’t name the country until later in his prepared remarks. On Sunday, he appeared to take stronger aim at China during a question-and-answer session on stage at the State Library of New South Wales in downtown Sydney.
“I’ll hear folks talk about trade and economic issues as separate from national security,” Mr. Pompeo said. “Let’s make no mistake about it, China’s capacity, the People’s Liberation Army’s capacity to do exactly what they’re doing is a direct result of trade relationships that they built.”
Australia, a staunch American ally that fought with the U.S. in two world wars, faces a difficult diplomatic balancing act with China, which is its biggest two-way trade partner but also poses a growing security threat.
The trade spat between the U.S. and China intensified this week when President Trump threatened to place fresh tariffs on another $300 billion worth of Chinese goods, sparking a threat from China to retaliate. Recent data showed trade tensions have taken a toll, with China no longer the U.S.’s top trading partner.
“We have in the United States [a] deep economic relationship with China, we think there’s real opportunity there,” Mr. Pompeo said. “But we have to be very, very careful.”
Protests by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, a former British colony that is now a special administrative region of China, have prompted concerns that China could intervene militarily in the territory. And in the South China Sea, Beijing has enforced its claims to the disputed waters by building artificial islands and equipping them with infrastructure that could be used for military purposes.
The U.S. and its allies have stepped up joint exercises in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the region in a bid to counter Chinese power projection.
Meanwhile, China has signed a deal with Cambodia for exclusive rights to a major naval base in that country.
“Those very same economic tools that President Trump is so focused on fixing are what also has enabled China to do all of the things they’re doing with their military,” Mr. Pompeo said Sunday. “It underwrites their capacity to build their military.”