President Xi and his new foreign minister warn of conflict if US position does not change

It was his first major speech as China’s new foreign minister, but that didn’t stop Qin Gang from using fierce words against the US. His speech at the Chinese People’s Congress in Beijing centered on one warning: the US must change its “distorted attitude” towards China, or there will be “conflict and confrontation.”

Ties with Russia will actually become stronger ‘when the world becomes more turbulent’, said the brand new foreign minister in the room with three thousand members of the Chinese parliament and a few dozen carefully selected journalists.

In a nearly two-hour speech, Qin lamented the growing US military presence in the Pacific, the approval of a major arms deal with Taiwan and the US role in “prolonging Russian aggression against Ukraine.” According to Qin, US President Joe Biden would institute all those measures to “contain and suppress China.”

Some of Qin’s sentences seemed to come straight from President Xi Jinping’s speech. He spoke in Jiangsu province on Monday. Xi also accused Washington of suppressing China. He used the Chinese word for containment, an explicit reference to America’s policy of containment of opponents during the Cold War – although the word was not found in the English translation of Xi’s speech on state medium Xinhua.

Cutting at a high level

That tensions between China and the US – fueled by the military threat in Taiwan, the war in Ukraine and the incident in which a Chinese balloon was shot down over US territory – is basically nothing new. And lower-level officials speaking out strongly against America is also happening more often. But for two top-level officials to inflict such a sneer at the US has not happened since the start of the corona pandemic.

“This fierce sentiment reminds me of April 2020,” says Manya Koetse, editor-in-chief of What’s On Weibo, a platform that tracks Chinese social media. “Then Wuhan was able to reopen its doors, just as Europe and America were in trouble with the pandemic. China was doing well at the time. That gave the leaders self-confidence that you can see again now.”

During those early corona days, ‘wolf diplomacy’ reigned supreme, says Koetse: a nationalistic and confrontational attitude of Chinese diplomats, under Xi’s assertive leadership. “That wolf diplomacy was a bit milder for a while, because all eyes in China were focused on fighting the pandemic,” says Koetse.

“But now the narrative is that China has overcome the covid epidemic, a ‘true victory of the Chinese people’. Although you can question that. It gave China back its cultural confidence, so it’s time to address the anti-Western sentiment. This digital nationalism is also reflected online, for example through the use of the same anti-Western hashtags as in 2020.”

That tone is particularly fierce towards the US, notes Xiaoxue Martin, China expert at the Clingendael Institute. “Trust between the US and China is now at an all-time low. But to European listeners, China’s tone is not so direct. In it, China emphasizes the oh so important autonomy of Europe. Autonomous from the US, that is, not from China. A strategic choice, because China understands that it brings Europe closer to the US with strong language.”

No guardrails

In any case, the fierce words clash with the agreement that Biden and Xi made in November 2022. World leaders then spoke of symbolic ‘guard rails’, which were to prevent derailment between the world’s largest economies.

Little of those guardrails remained this week, Qin’s speech showed. “If the US has the ambition to become itself great containment and suppression will not accomplish that. In any case, it will not stop China’s rejuvenation.”

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