Chinese ambassador Qin Gang says continued ‘confrontation’ by US will hinder chance at cooperation

·5-min read

China’s new ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, warned on Wednesday that Beijing would not engage in joint efforts to de-escalate bilateral tensions unless Washington prevented competition between the two powers from veering into confrontation.

“Competition on the US side often takes the form of confrontation, especially on major issues concerning China’s core interests,” said Qin, speaking at a virtual event jointly hosted by the George HW Bush China Foundation and the Carter Centre. “If this does not change, it will undermine China’s efforts to promote our mutual trust and cooperation.”

Qin did not elaborate on those “core interests”, but his remarks came after repeated warnings by senior Chinese officials to their US counterparts of “three bottom lines”: to not obstruct China’s development, not undermine its territorial integrity, and not subvert its model of governance.

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“We welcome and readily accept various suggestions or criticism as long as they are objective, truthful, well-intentioned and constructive,” said Qin. “However, we do not accept baseless slander and disinformation. We do not accept condescending lecturing. And we do not accept words or deeds that undermine China’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity.”

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Among the issues on which the US and China need to work together is the environmental crisis, said Qin, adding that both countries must honour their climate commitments with “real action”. Suggesting some scepticism in Beijing about the shelf life of the US government’s commitment to tackling climate change given the previous administration’s track record, Qin said the international community had “misgivings” about whether the US would “flip again”.

The comments came a day after Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged at the United Nations that China would stop building coal-powered projects overseas, long seen by climate campaigners as a blight on China’s green energy credentials.

A senior US administration official said on Wednesday that the new commitment was “a welcome contribution” to efforts to address the climate crisis, but said that “more needs to be done.”

“We do hope that [China] will do more and we look forward to hearing more about the additional steps that they can take in this decisive decade to further reduce their national emissions and to help put the world more closely on a trajectory that will hold temperatures from rising to well above 1.5 degrees,” the official said in a background call with reporters.

Amid the bilateral acrimony, climate action has emerged as a rare opportunity for coordination. But while US President Joe Biden called for a united global effort to combat climate change in his UN address on Wednesday, his frequent framing of the international community as democracies against authoritarianism has angered Beijing.

On Wednesday, Qin spent more than 15 minutes arguing that China was in fact a democratic nation, citing the existence of elections at the township level and the government’s consultative processes and institutions.

Under what is effectively a one-party system, Chinese citizens have no power to directly elect their leaders or choose an alternative government. In what critics considered a further slide toward dictatorial governance, China in 2018 approved the elimination of the two-term limit on the presidency.

“We never say that our system is the best,” said Qin. “Whether it is good or not should not be judged by what we say, but what we do.”

China is the most prolific jailer of journalists in the world, according to a 2020 study by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The country also came 151st in a 2021 global ranking of democracies produced by the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, and last in an internet freedom ranking of 70 countries released on Tuesday by Washington-based Freedom House.

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Qin did not respond to a suggestion from an event participant that China reopen its doors to the American journalists at three US newspapers it expelled last year. And pressed by a moderator about what China was willing to do to de-escalate tensions, Qin said only that Beijing had demonstrated “great sincerity in starting up dialogue and communications with the United States to de-escalate the tensions.”

In response to questions about Qin’s remarks, a State Department representative said the US was willing to work with China on matters where the two countries’ “national fates are intertwined”, such as climate change, arms control, and global health security.

But Beijing’s “failure to uphold its past international commitments is a significant factor in how we will develop our approach to China,” the official added. “We are clear-eyed and will keep these past shortcomings in mind as we deal with Beijing going forward.”

Qin became Beijing’s US envoy in July, replacing Cui Tiankai, who had been China’s longest serving ambassador. Cui’s tenure was punctuated by a trade war, numerous tit-for-tat sanctions and spiking tensions across the technology, military and media spheres.

Many of those tensions have remained and even grown under the presidency of Biden, who has described the US-China rivalry as a competition “to win the 21st century,” while also stressing that Washington does not seek a “new Cold War”.

Cui Tiankai in Washington in 2018. Photo: Reuters
Cui Tiankai in Washington in 2018. Photo: Reuters

In a sign of the times, Qin was given no reception by State Department officials when he arrived in Washington, unlike Cui in 2013 during Barack Obama’s presidency.

A veteran member of China’s diplomatic corps, Qin was once the face of Beijing’s pivot to a more confrontational approach to international relations in the 2000s. As a foreign ministry spokesman, his jibes at foreign governments and correspondents won him viral acclaim at home.

But since taking up his new post in Washington, Qin has generally struck a more conciliatory tone, telling reporters upon arrival that the US and China were entering “a new round of mutual exploration, understanding and adaptation”.

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