Biden faces ‘unpredictable’ era with China’s Xi

By AAMER MADHANI, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s administration is taking stock of the newly empowered Xi Jinping as the Chinese president begins a third five-year term as leader of the norm-breaking Communist Party. With US-China relations already strained, fears are growing in Washington that even tougher days may lie ahead.

Xi Jinping has amassed power over China’s ruling party not seen since Mao Zedong, leader from 1949 until his death in 1976. Xi’s consolidation of power comes as the United States has updated its defense and national security strategies to reflect that China is now America’s most powerful military and economic adversary.

Biden is proud to have built a relationship with Xi since first meeting him more than a decade ago, when they served as vice presidents of their respective countries. But Biden now faces a counterpart in Xi Jinping backed by greater power and a determination to cement China’s superpower status, even as he navigates strong economic and diplomatic headwinds.

“We are not back in the Mao era. Xi Jinping is not Mao,” said Jude Blanchette, chair of China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But we are definitely in new and unpredictable territory in terms of the stability and predictability of China’s political system.”

Biden and Xi are expected to hold talks on the sidelines of next month’s Group of 20 summit in Indonesia, a long-awaited meeting that comes after nearly two years of strained relations. The leaders are trying to gain the upper hand in a contest that both believe will determine which country will be the leading global economic and political power to rule the next century.

“There are an awful lot of issues that we should be talking about with China,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. He added that US and Chinese officials are working to arrange a meeting of the leaders, although one has not yet been confirmed. “Some issues are quite contentious and some should be collaborative,” Kirby said.

Biden and Xi traveled to the US and China together in 2011 and 2012 and have held five phone or video calls since Biden became president in January 2021. However, the relationship between the US and China has become much more complicated since they met. -You talk about food in Washington and on the Tibetan Plateau ten years ago.

As president, Biden has repeatedly taken China to task for human rights abuses against the Uyghur people and other ethnic minorities, Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, coercive trade practices, military provocations against self-ruled Taiwan and disagreements over Russia’s prosecution of its war against Ukraine.

Xi’s government has criticized the Biden administration’s stance on Taiwan — which Beijing looks set to eventually reunite with the communist mainland — as undermining China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Chinese president also indicated that Washington wants to curb the growing influence of Beijing, which is trying to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy.

“External attempts to suppress and limit China may escalate at any time,” Xi warned in a speech before the Communist Party Congress. “Therefore, we need to be more aware of potential hazards, be prepared to deal with worst-case scenarios and be prepared to withstand strong winds, rough water and even dangerous storms.”

Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago who covers Chinese politics, said there were some potentially stabilizing developments in the relationship after months of animosity.

Two of China’s best-known diplomats in Washington were promoted at a Communist Party meeting. Foreign Minister Wang Yi was elected to the Communist Party’s Politburo, a political body made up of 24 top officials. China’s ambassador to the US, Qin Gang, joins its central committee. Their increase should bring some degree of continuity to US-China relations, Yang said.

Yang noted that the Communist Party leadership was also trying to “temper its warm embrace of Russia”. Last month, after meeting Xi on the sidelines of a summit in Uzbekistan, Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that Xi had expressed “concerns and questions” about the war in Ukraine.

With his third term confirmed, “Xi Jinping is now in some ways freer to act and less burdened by not having to keep watching what his rivals are doing,” Yang said. “I think that may actually influence his approach and may make it easier for him to deal with Biden.”

White House officials downplayed hopes that Xi’s new five-year tenure in the Communist Party could give him room to engage more fully on issues where China has some overlapping interests with the US.

During a meeting with Defense Department officials on Wednesday, Biden stressed that the US is “not seeking conflict” with China. Hours later, Chinese state television reported that Xi told members of the National Committee on US-China Relations that Beijing should find ways to work with Washington on issues of mutual concern.

The conciliatory moment was short-lived.

The next day, U.S. and Chinese officials traded rhetorical shots over a U.S. move earlier this month to expand export controls on sales of advanced semiconductor chips to China.

“The US has exaggerated the concept of national security and suppressed China’s development, and ordinary trade cooperation has been politicized and shaped as weapons,” Wang Hongxia, a counselor at the Chinese embassy in Washington, told reporters.

Her comments came not long after the Commerce Department’s top official, Assistant Secretary Alan Estevez, told a Washington forum that “if I was a betting man, I’d put money” on the US imposing more export controls on China.

China’s economy is slowing and Beijing reported this month that growth in the first nine months of the year was 3%, causing it to fall well below its official full-year target of 5.5%. The country’s economy is also reeling from strict “zero” COVID rules, and Beijing is facing a slowdown in exports and house prices, which fell to a seven-year low in September.

It also faces increased competition from the US and the European Union, which are investing tens of billions of dollars in the race for semiconductors and other technologies. All of this points to the possibility that China may not eclipse US gross domestic product by 2030, as many economists have predicted.

Ruchir Sharma, chairman of Rockefeller International, recently concluded that with its likely growth trajectory, China will overtake the US economy by 2060, if it succeeds at all.

At the same time, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as well as the US chief naval operations officer, Admiral Mike Gilday, recently expressed concern that Beijing may try to speed up its timeline to conquer Taiwan. Blinken said China had made a “fundamental decision that the status quo is no longer acceptable.”

China has largely refrained from criticizing Russia’s war in Ukraine, but has also delayed arms shipments to Moscow. Still, the conflict has raised concerns in Taiwan that China – which has never controlled the island – could be further emboldened to press ahead with its long-touted plan for unification.

Tensions between the US and China were further fueled by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August and Biden’s remark in May that the US military would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, a White House comment later downplayed.

“The concern now is that Xi Jinping, with unlimited power and ambition, can use Taiwan to distract from his domestic problems,” said Keith Krach, a former secretary of state during the Trump administration. “I hope he looked at the courage of the Ukrainians and reckoned that the people of Taiwan are just as brave, maybe even more so.”

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