Is the United States out to sabotage China? Chinese leaders think so. President Xi Jinping accused Washington this week of trying to isolate his country and hold back its development. That reflects the ruling Communist Party’s growing frustration that its pursuit of prosperity and global influence is threatened by US restrictions on access to technology, its support for Taiwan and other moves seen by Beijing as hostile.
Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, tries to appear to be above problems and usually makes blandly positive public comments. That made his complaint Monday all the more striking. Xi said a US-led campaign of “containment and suppression” of China has “brought unprecedented, severe challenges.” He called on the public to “dare to fight.”
On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Qin Gang sharpened the warning, saying Washington faces possible “conflict and confrontation” if it fails to change course.
“The foreign minister is speaking on behalf of a widely held view that the United States is coming after China and they have to defend themselves,” said John Delury, an international relations specialist at Yonsei University in Seoul.
China is hardly the only government to fume at Washington’s dominance of global strategic and economic affairs. But Chinese leaders see the United States as making extra effort to thwart Beijing as a challenger for regional and possibly global leadership.
The ruling party wants to restore China’s historic role as a political and cultural leader, raise incomes by transforming the country into an inventor of technology, and unite what it considers the Chinese motherland by taking control of Taiwan, the self-ruled island democracy that Beijing claims as part of its territory.
Beijing sees those as positive goals, but American officials see them as threats. They say Chinese development plans are based at least in part on stealing or pressuring foreign companies to hand over technology. Some warn Chinese competition might erode US industrial dominance and incomes.
Washington has set back Beijing’s plans by putting Chinese companies including its first global tech brand, Huawei, on a blacklist that limits access to processor chips and other technology. That crippled Huawei’s smartphone brand, once one of the world’s biggest. American officials are lobbying European and other allies to avoid Huawei equipment when they upgrade phone networks.
Washington cites security fears, but Beijing says that is an excuse to hurt its fledgling competitors.
The two governments have the world’s biggest trading relationship and common interests in combating climate change and other problems. But relations are strained over Taiwan, Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong and mostly Muslim ethnic minorities, and its refusal to criticize or isolate Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
The official Chinese view has soured following an uptick when Xi met US President Joe Biden in November in Indonesia, said Shi Yinhong, an international relations specialist at Renmin University in Beijing. He noted that in the five months since then, Washington approved more weapons sales to Taiwan, criticized Beijing’s stance on Ukraine and put more Chinese companies on export watchlists, all of which China saw as hostile.
Xi and Qin spoke in a “dramatic way” this week, but “the essence of what they said is China’s long-term stance,” Shi said. The leadership believes “the United States has implemented almost all around, drastic and desperate containment of China in all respects, especially in strategic and military fields.”
“The risk of military conflict between China and the United States is getting bigger,” Shi said.
A State Department spokesperson, Ned Price, said Washington wants to “coexist responsibly” within the global trade and political system and denied the US government wants to suppress China.
“This is not about containing China. This is not about suppressing China. This is not about holding China back,” Price said in Washington. “We want to have that constructive competition that is fair” and “doesn’t veer into that conflict.”
The United States formed a strategic group, the Quad, with Japan, Australia and India in response to concern about China and its claim to vast tracts of sea that are busy shipping lanes. They insist the group doesn’t focus on any one country, but its official statements are about territorial claims and other issues on which they have disputes with Beijing.
The latest change in tone follows acrimonious exchanges over a Chinese balloon that was shot down after passing over North America. Its electronics and other equipment are being examined by the FBI.
Qin, the foreign minister is “trying to position China as a global force for moderation and for peace” in front of foreign audiences and say “it’s the Americans who are blowing things out of proportion,” Delury said.
Xi’s government is especially irritated by displays of support by American and other Western legislators for Taiwan, which split with China in 1949 after a civil war.
Taiwan never has been part of the People’s Republic of China, but the Communist Party says the island of 22 million people must unite with the mainland, by force if necessary.
Washington is obligated by federal law to see that Taiwan has the weapons to defend itself and has sold it fighter jets and missiles. Chinese leaders complain that encourages Taiwanese politicians who might want to resist unification and possibly declare formal independence, a step Beijing says would lead to war.
Premier Li Keqiang, who is due to step down as China’s No. 2 leader this month, called on Sunday for “peaceful reunification.” But Xi’s government also has stepped up efforts to intimidate the island by flying fighter jets and firing missiles into the sea nearby.
The latest downturn is “testament to the real degradation” of US-Chinese relations, which “never had much trust,” said Drew Thompson, a fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
Chinese leaders “consider any sort of discussion on strategic issues as sensitive and out of bounds,” which leads to “heightened risk of miscalculation,” Thompson said.
“They believe the US is a hegemon that seeks to undermine the Communist Party and its legitimacy, and they have ample evidence of that,” he said. “But should perceptions and the balance of interests change, they could just as easily believe the US is a partner for achieving the party’s objectives.”
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