Xi’s Vow to ‘Stand Tall’ Has China on Collision Course With US

  • Beijing’s foreign policy turned more muscular under Xi Jinping
  • Approach caused tensions with US, hurt perceptions of China

At the last Communist Party congress in 2017, Xi Jinping declared that China was “standing tall and firm in the East.” Now the US and key allies are looking to cut the world’s second-biggest economy down to size.

The shift over the past five years gained momentum with Donald Trump’s tariff war, which helped cement the perception in Washington that China was more a threat than an opportunity — a view that held firm when Joe Biden became president. Last week, his administration imposed sweeping curbs to deprive China of advanced computer chips, taking aim at the party’s ability to achieve its long-term growth ambitions.

Xi’s characterization of China’s position in the world — and the security challenges it faces — will be closely watched during his speech on Sunday kicking off the once-in-five-years party congress, at which he’s poised to secure a norm-breaking third term.

Either way, the next five years look set to get more acrimonious between the globe’s top powers as economic and military tensions heat up across a range of fronts, including Taiwan. Although Xi and Biden may hold their first face-to-face meeting as presidents next month at the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia, expectations for a breakthrough are low.

“I expect the US-China relationship to become more confrontational, not less,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the US. “I increasingly think it will take the shock of a significant crisis for the two countries to have a serious dialogue about how to peacefully coexist.”

The mood now is starkly different than in 2017, when prominent voices in the US and China still favored engagement and conflicts appeared manageable. Yet trust withered away considerably over the past five years, making it politically difficult now in either country to make the case for a softer approach.

In a polarized US, which is facing a range of domestic troubles and questions about its clout in the world, bipartisan support for a tougher line against China is strong. That’s mainly due to Beijing’s moves to crush dissent in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, lack of transparency on Covid, partnership with Russia and aggressive posture toward Taiwan and the South China Sea.

“There has been a remarkable change in how Washington views the Chinese Communist Party,” said Ian Easton, senior director at the Project 2049 Institute, a research group that focuses on US policy toward Asia. “The implications of that for Beijing are hard to overstate.”

Xi’s reference to “standing tall” in 2017 marked a dramatic shift from former leader Deng Xiaoping’s “hide and bide” strategy for China to keep a lower international profile while quietly building strength. Some voices in China, including Deng’s son, warned that China’s government risked drawing attention to the country’s rise too soon.

But now it’s clear that confrontation is here to stay, and moderate voices in China have been silenced in recent years.

“This is because the US has treated China as a strategic competitor, including on chips and the supply chain, the internationalization of NATO, etc.,” said Wang Yiwei, a former Chinese diplomat and director of Renmin University’s Institute of International Affairs in Beijing. “This is a very clear change.”

The US and its allies see Xi undermining decades of international norms and institutions that fostered China’s rise, as well as the expansion of democracy and respect for human rights.

‘Cold War’

“Under President Xi, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has become more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a May speech laying out the Biden administration’s approach toward China. He said the US “will shape the strategic environment around Beijing” to advance American interests.

From Beijing’s point of view, that means the US will keep trying to hem in China’s ambitions and growth. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has repeatedly accused the US of sticking with a “Cold War” mentality from the days of the Soviet Union.

“The United States has framed a false narrative of ‘democracy versus authoritarianism,’ identified China as the primary rival and the most serious long-term challenge, and wantonly allowed its House speaker to visit Taiwan,” Wang said in a speech last month.

Soldiers participate in a military exercise in Miaoli, Taiwan, in July.Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg

Taiwan is at the center of US-China tensions. Beijing sees the self-governing island as part of its territory and is now better prepared to act on that belief. China had already ramped up incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone months before Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August prompted China to unleash unprecedented military drills and cut off talks in a range of areas.

Biden has repeatedly said the US would come to the democracy’s aid if attacked, marking a shift in the policy of “strategic ambiguity” that guided US-China relations for decades — even as the White House insists that nothing has changed.

The Biden administration’s efforts to prevent China from getting high-end semiconductor chips used in artificial intelligence and supercomputing is another key source of tension. Beijing has said the US moves are aimed at maintaining a “sci-tech hegemony” and intended to “hobble Chinese enterprises.”

Xi has renewed calls for officials and companies to focus on making tech breakthroughs so the country can be less vulnerable to US moves, but progress has been mixed. Bloomberg News reported in August that Chinese officials were angry at how tens of billions of dollars funneled into the industry haven’t yielded much.

An employee works on the production line of semiconductor wafer at a factory in Jiangsu Province on Sept. 27.Photographer: VCG/Getty Images

It’s not just the US that has doubts about China’s trajectory, even as Beijing has managed to win backing on key issues like Xinjiang from many countries that depend on it as a top trading partner.

A survey by the Pew Research Center this month showed that unfavorable views of China have climbed sharply in recent years in countries including South Korea, Australia, Canada, the UK and Germany. There was little confidence in Xi personally in nations across Europe and North America, Pew said.

Indian billionaire Gautam Adani warned on Sept. 27 that current trends threaten to leave China isolated. “Increasing nationalism, supply chain risk mitigation and technology restrictions will have an impact,” Adani, the world’s fourth-richest person, said at the Forbes Global CEO Conference in Singapore.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s actions have often backfired. Chinese officials appeared caught off-guard by Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine just weeks after the Russian president and Xi met to affirm their “no limits” friendship.

Xi Jinping with Vladimir Putin in Uzbekistan, on Sept. 15.Photographer: Zhai Jianlan/Xinhua/Getty Images

An investment agreement the EU and China spent seven years negotiating collapsed in late 2020 over Europe’s criticism of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Border clashes with India helped push Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be more active in the Quad bloc with the US, Japan and Australia.

Despite the strained ties, there’s little risk that Washington and Beijing cut ties entirely. Two-way trade totaled $466 billion in the first eight months of 2022, up $60 billion from the same period a year before.

Changed Relationship

While China’s prowess has grown under Xi, the country still can’t go it alone. Despite its “friendship” with Russia, Beijing has largely accepted the web of sanctions meant to undercut Putin’s war in Ukraine. Hong Kong banks have also respected US measures imposed on the city’s officials, wary of losing access to the dollar-based international financial system.

“China still has incentives to maintain a peaceful relationship with the US,” said Vivian Zhan, associate professor of Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

But the terms of that relationship have shifted.

China “wants to reach the point where, one, it can do whatever it wants and no one has anything to say about it, no one responds in a negative way because of Chinese power predominantly,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, who studies China’s military at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

“And two,” she added, “that countries — especially in the region — when they make their own decisions, they accommodate Chinese preferences.”

Source: Bloomberg

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