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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

China’s leader, with rare bluntness, blames troubles on US containment

In a photo provided by the U.S. Navy, sailors recover the downed Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 5, 2023.

By Keith Bradsher

As he heads into an expected third term as president, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, is signaling that he will take a harder stance against what he perceives as an effort by the United States to block China’s rise. And he’s doing so in uncommonly blunt terms.

Xi has hailed China’s success as proof that modernization does not equal Westernization. He has urged China to strive to develop advanced technologies to reduce its reliance on Western know-how. Then Monday, he made clear what he regarded as an important threat to China’s growth: the United States.

“Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-around containment, encirclement and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development,” Xi said in a speech, according to China’s official news agency.

In an indication that Xi’s forthright approach signaled a broader shift in Beijing’s rhetoric, China’s new foreign minister Tuesday reinforced Xi’s message about containment.

Xi’s new directness could play well at home with a nationalist audience but risks raising wariness abroad at a time when Beijing has sought to stabilize ties with the West. It reflects how he is bracing for more confrontation and competition between the world’s two largest economies.

His meeting with President Joe Biden in November had raised hopes that Beijing and Washington might try to arrest the downward spiral in relations. Tensions have since only escalated over U.S. support of Taiwan, the democratically governed island Beijing claims as its territory, as well as U.S. accusations that China operates a fleet of spy balloons, a claim China has denied. The Biden administration has depicted Xi as seeking to reshape the U.S.-led international order to bolster Beijing’s interests. China’s close alignment with Russia, at a time when the West is seeking to isolate Moscow over its war on Ukraine, has intensified concerns about a new type of cold war.

“This is the first time to my knowledge that Xi Jinping has publicly come out and identified the U.S. as taking such actions against China,” said Michael Swaine, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “It is, without doubt, a response to the harsh criticisms of China, and of Xi Jinping personally, that Biden and many in the administration have leveled in recent months.”

China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, the former ambassador to the United States, defended Beijing’s right to respond.

“The United States actually wants China not to fight back when hit or cursed, but this is impossible,” he said at a news conference in Beijing on Tuesday.

Qin also called for the United States to take a less confrontational stance toward his country.

“If the U.S. doesn’t step on the brakes but continues to speed up, no guardrail can stop the derailment,” he said.

China has come under increasing pressure from the United States and its allies to use its influence on Russia to stop the Ukraine war. Washington has also publicly accused China of considering sending weapons to Russia for its war, prompting a flurry of warnings from Western officials that Beijing would face consequences for such an action.

Qin denied the weapons allegations and criticized U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan. He blamed an “invisible hand” — the United States, in other words — for escalating the conflict in Ukraine.

China “is not a party to the crisis and has not provided weapons to either side of the conflict,” Qin said. “So on what basis is this talk of blame, sanctions and threats against China? This is absolutely unacceptable.”

China’s ambitions have also fueled pressure and scrutiny from the United States on trade and technology. As China has built the world’s largest navy and asserted its claims over Taiwan and the South China Sea, a bipartisan consensus has formed in Washington in favor of reducing U.S. dependence on manufactured goods from China and restricting Beijing’s access to advanced technologies that could be used in war.

The tariffs that President Donald Trump imposed on a wide range of Chinese exports to the United States are still mostly in place. Biden has also imposed broad curbs on the export to China of semiconductors and semiconductor manufacturing equipment. The Biden administration and Congress have increased their scrutiny of Chinese investments in the United States and begun looking at limits on American investments in China’s tech sector.

These restrictions come as the Communist Party has sought to focus its efforts on reviving the economy, which grew only 3% last year, falling far short of the government’s target. The Chinese government’s “zero COVID” policy of citywide lockdowns, mass testing and quarantines forced many businesses to shutter, disrupted industrial supply chains and severely damaged consumer confidence, especially last year. Xi pointed to the United States’ restrictions as holding back growth, but Washington’s trade measures had little immediate effect on overall trade.

Xi’s comments about the United States were part of a speech he made to a Chinese business group. He urged private companies — a main driver of growth and jobs — to work with the party to help China counter the challenges posed by U.S. containment.

“We must remain calm, maintain concentration, seek progress while maintaining stability, take active actions, unite as one, and dare to fight,” he said, according to the report by Chinese television.

China’s propaganda apparatus appeared to be directing Xi’s accusations about the United States at the Chinese public, placing it on the front page of People’s Daily on Tuesday while omitting it entirely from an English-language version of the same article from the official Xinhua News Agency.

Andrew K. Collier, the managing director of Hong Kong-based Orient Capital Research, said Xi may not have been trying to adjust his stance toward the United States as much as reassure the Chinese public that he is defending their interests.

“Xi Jinping’s comment about containment may heighten tensions with the United States, but he is mainly speaking to a domestic audience,” Collier said. “He’s trying to foster the country’s high-tech firms both for economic growth and to handle decoupling at a time when China is facing severe economic headwinds. Beating the nationalist drum is a politically savvy way to achieve these goals.”

Li Mingjiang, an associate professor of international relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, offered a more pessimistic assessment of the Chinese leader’s stance.

“Xi’s comments suggest that the Chinese leadership believes the U.S. and the West do not have any good intentions towards China,” he said. “It clearly indicates that they understand that China’s relations with the Western world will be very difficult in the coming years.”

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