As the US presidential candidates sparred over how to counter China, the country’s leader Xi Jinping was making clear that a newly emboldened country would not back down from a fight.
In a speech marking the 70th anniversary of China’s entry into the Korean war – the only military conflict between Chinese and American forces – Xi outlined in no uncertain terms that the “century of humiliation” Beijing said it suffered at the hands of Western aggressors was long gone.
“The grand spirit of resisting US aggression and aiding Korea spans across time and space, becoming more resolute with the passing of time, and must be passed on forever and carried forth from generation to generation,” he said.
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“No matter the country, no matter the military, no matter how powerful, if they are standing in opposition to the world’s trends, bullying the world’s weak, trying to turn back history, engage in aggression and expansion, this will inevitably lead to bloodshed.”
His antagonistic rhetoric coincided with fiery exchanges across the Pacific between Donald Trump and Joe Biden from the debate stage in the southern US state of Tennessee about how to counter China.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said Xi’s comments about US imperialism were a departure from previous restraint over the issue and were “shot across the bow against the USA to warn it to ease off on pressure on China”.
He continued that it was “not a good sign or an indication that Xi gets US politics, as this can only backfire in the current state of US-China relations”.
Tsang said: “It may also filter down to air force pilots who may also get more aggressive in chance encounters with their US counterparts, and the risk of incident increases as Xi and the Party Central takes on a more clearly anti-USA tone in indoctrinating Chinese officers.”
Analysts say a war between the countries remains unlikely, but some warn that no matter who wins the US election, relations may still deteriorate further as Xi adopts a more aggressive stance while the Washington consensus moves further from engagement.
“The future is not hopeful, since whoever it is that takes the presidency, they will not be polite to China,” Cui Lei, an associate research fellow with the China Institute of International Studies, said. “[For China,] using tough words does not mean a willingness to go to war, just that there is mental preparation and planning for the worst.”
It was clear on Thursday evening that neither Trump nor Biden would go easy on China.
Biden said during the final presidential debate that he would make China “play by the international rules” and slammed Trump for being chummy with “thugs” such as Xi.
“We need to be having the rest of our friends with us saying to China: ‘these are the rules’,” Biden said of his plans to rally American allies to pressure Beijing. “You play by them or you’re going to pay the price for not playing by them, economically.”
Meanwhile, the US president blamed China for the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic and said US farmers had benefited from billions of dollars that he had raised through tariffs on Chinese goods.
But Xi said China would never allow its sovereignty, security and development interests to be undermined. And that any act of unilateralism, monopolism and bullying would not work, and would only lead to a dead end.
“Let the world know that the people of China are now united, and are not to be trifled with,” he said.
Wei Zongyou, a professor specialising in US-China relations at Fudan University, said the Chinese side did not want relations to further deteriorate, but “would continue to be ready to fight”.
“If Trump is re-elected, the relationship will go through more twists and turns and will keep moving towards confrontation,” he said. “If Biden is elected, the competitive trend will also not change, but there still may be room for cooperation on issues such as global governance.”
There have been fears about a growing risk of war between China and the US, particularly from accidents or miscalculations between the two sides in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Beijing has said that its claims to sovereignty over the democratic island of Taiwan and most of the energy-rich South China Sea are “core issues” it would not relinquish.
This week, Beijing protested about the US decision to approve a US$1.8 billion arms deal with Taiwan that will give the island cruise missiles that could strike targets on the Chinese mainland.
Chin-Hao Huang, a professor of political science at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, said Xi’s address was intended as a domestic reminder that its military was a priority, a signal against potential “separatist” forces and as a message to both the US and North Korea that China remained engaged on Korean issues.
“Another core implication that’s embedded in that very nationalistic speech this morning was that China will do whatever it takes to protect its territorial integrity, and these are considered front and centre in China’s national interests, particularly Taiwan,” he said.
Huang said that China’s leadership would remain concerned that they had a “target on their backs with the United States leading the criticism” about Chinese foreign policy, regardless of who won the presidency, but that the two were not necessarily destined for war.
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