WASHINGTON DC – Qin Gang, the new Chinese foreign minister, is not known for his subtlety, but his remarks on the sidelines of the country’s annual parliamentary session on 7 March were particularly stark. During his first press conference since assuming the role in December, he warned that the US and China were moving towards confrontation and that the “future of humanity” was at stake.
“If the United States does not hit the brakes, and continues to speed down the wrong path,” Qin said, the countries were headed towards “conflict and confrontation” that would have “catastrophic consequences”.
His words were carefully chosen. Joe Biden, the US president, said during his state of the union speech in February that he had made clear to Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, that his country sought “competition, not conflict” with China. Qin hit back: “But in fact, the United States’ so-called competition is total containment and suppression, a zero-sum game in which you die and I live.”
This was not an isolated comment. His language mirrored that of Xi the previous day when he said that Western countries “led by the US” were implementing a policy of “all-round containment” against China. Li Keqiang, China’s outgoing premier, similarly warned during his speech on 5 March that “external attempts to suppress and contain China are escalating”. This is clearly becoming a key theme of this year’s parliamentary gathering.
It is striking that both Xi and Qin made specific references to the US, instead of the usual opaque references to the “dangerous storms” that are gathering in international politics and the challenges in China’s external security environment. Both are explicitly blaming Washington for the downward spiral in relations with the US.
The feeling, in parts of the US political establishment at least, is mutual. In his opening remarks at the first hearing of the new congressional select committee on China on 28 February, which was broadcast live on television in prime time, the Republican chairman Mike Gallagher warned that the outcome of the US’s “strategic competition” with China would determine the future global order. “This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century – and the most fundamental freedoms are at stake.”
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Democrats and Republicans on the committee disagree on how the US should approach this contest – some Democrats have called for the US to focus on domestic issues and end wrangling over the budget, for instance – but they agree on the scale of the geopolitical challenge posed by Beijing.
The White House has taken a more restrained approach so far, with Biden emphasising after meeting Xi in Bali in November that he believes the two sides can avoid “a new Cold War”. But as the 2024 presidential election approaches, with Biden expected to announce his candidacy in the coming months, he will be wary of being outflanked by his Republican rivals and portrayed as being weak on China. Following the Chinese spy balloon debacle last month, Antony Blinken, his secretary of state, indefinitely postponed a visit to Beijing that had been intended to help establish the “guardrails” that Qin derided in his news conference.
One immediate consequence of the hardening positions on both sides is the strengthening of China-Russia relations, with US officials warning in recent weeks that Beijing is considering supplying lethal aid to Moscow to sustain the floundering Russian offensive in Ukraine. In a section of his remarks that drew less attention, Qin claimed that China and Russia were “joining hands” to build a new model of international relations that will “move towards a multipolar world and [a] more democratic international system”.
Contrary to the periodic wishful thinking in Western capitals that Xi might eventually distance himself from Vladimir Putin, Qin stressed that: “The more turbulent the world is, the more China-Russia relations should keep moving forward.” The questions for the press conference had been submitted in advance, so it was Qin’s choince to address this issue and to signal that Beijing will not change its approach to Moscow.
Qin’s remarks, as with those of Xi and other senior politicians, are aimed at multiple audiences. They are flashing bright red warning signs to the US that Beijing has no intention of backing down and that if Washington wants to avoid open confrontation it must change its approach, although in fact the fiery rhetoric risks provoking the opposite response. Meanwhile, the message to the domestic audience at a time when economic growth remains sluggish, and to third countries, is that none of this is China’s fault.
Instead of admitting his mistakes or questioning his support for Putin, Xi is doubling down on the idea that China’s problems are all the fault of its external enemies, and that it is the US, not China, that is leading the two powers towards conflict.