China rejected Mike Pence’s charge that Beijing was meddling in American elections as "unwarranted" and "ridiculous".
The US vice-president accused China of orchestrating a military, economic and political campaign to undermine Donald Trump’s administration and bolster Chinese influence in America and worldwide.
“China has initiated an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 [midterm congressional] elections, and the environment leading into the 2020 presidential elections,” Mr Pence said on Thursday.
“To put it bluntly, President Trump’s leadership is working, and China wants a different American president.”
The comments, made during a highly anticipated speech in Washington, came after Mr Trump used his platform at the United Nations General Assembly last week to allege that China was trying to interfere in November’s midterm elections. Neither the president nor his deputy have provided hard evidence of meddling.
Hua Chunying, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, said on Friday that Mr Pence had "slandered" China.
"This is nothing but speaking on hearsay evidence, confusing right and wrong and creating something out of thin air. The Chinese side is firmly opposed to it," she said.
"It is very ridiculous for the US side to stigmatise its normal exchanges and cooperation with China as China interfering in its internal affairs and elections," Hua said.
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Mr Pence’s accusations aggravated an already delicate bilateral relationship given an escalating trade war, and were embarrassing to China coming as it does during the country’s week-long celebrations of its founding.
The harsh words also follow an incident on Sunday when a Chinese vessel came within 45 yards of a US destroyer conducting freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, forcing the US ship to quickly change course to avoid a collision.
Mr Pence called the confrontation “reckless harassment”.
“The United States Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand,” he said.
Over half an hour, Mr Pence condemned China’s growing control at home and abroad, citing examples of religious oppression, human rights abuses, visa delays and denials for scholars, and even intimidation campaigns against Chinese students in the US.
He said Beijing used rewards and coercion to influence universities, movie studios, think tanks, journalists and government officials.
He also alleged that China threatened to deny a business license to a top US company if it refused to speak against the Trump administration.
The raft of allegations levelled at China have raised questions as to whether Mr Trump and his aides are trying to deflect attention from an investigation of his campaign’s possible ties to alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and also set up China for the blame if Republicans do poorly in November’s election.