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As Xi Jinping Extends Power, China Braces for a New Cold War

The New York Times logo The New York Times 2/28/2018 By JANE PERLEZ
BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 14: Xi Jinping,the president of China attends the 2018 Chinese New Year celebration party on 14th February 2018 in Beijing, China. © Photo by TPG/Getty Images BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 14: Xi Jinping,the president of China attends the 2018 Chinese New Year celebration party on 14th February 2018 in Beijing, China.

BEIJING — Having cast aside presidential term limits, China is bracing for relations with the United States to enter a dangerous period under the continuing leadership of President Xi Jinping, intending to stand firm against President Trump and against policies it sees as attempts to contain its rise, according to Chinese analysts.

Even before the announcement on Sunday that he could rule for the foreseeable future, Mr. Xi had ordered the Chinese military to counter the Pentagon with its own modernization in air, sea, space and cyber weapons, the analysts said, partly in response to Mr. Trump’s plans to revitalize American nuclear forces.

Rather than beginning a final term next month as a lame duck, Mr. Xi will govern with new authority to pursue his agenda of making China a global power even if it risks putting Beijing in conflict with Washington and triggering a new Cold War after 40 years of mutual engagement, the analysts said.

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“In the Asia-Pacific, the dominant role of the United States in a political and military sense will have to be readjusted,” said Cui Liru, former president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank under the Ministry of State Security that often reflects official thinking. “It doesn’t mean U.S. interests must be sacrificed. But if the U.S. insists on a dominant role forever, that’s a problem.”

Asked if conflict was likely in the region, Mr. Cui said: “I don’t exclude that possibility. In this transitional period, it depends on how the two sides handle it.”

He added that it was “not normal for China to be under U.S. dominance forever. You can’t justify dominance forever.”

Mr. Xi appears to share the view of many Chinese analysts and military officials that the United States is a superpower in decline — and that China must step into the vacuum it leaves behind.

He has accelerated the military’s plans to build a blue-water navy, increased spending on weaponry in outer space, and established China’s first military bases abroad. He has promoted a global infrastructure program to extend Beijing’s influence and ignored Western concerns about human rights, which have diminished under the Trump administration.

The move in Beijing to scrap constitutional limits on presidential terms comes as former officials in Washington have expressed growing remorse about the longstanding bipartisan push for trade with China — which they now worry has allowed Beijing to prosper at America’s expense.

Mr. Xi’s emergence as a strongman has driven home the disappointment among American policymakers that China has not become more open and democratic as it has become more wealthy. At the same time, Beijing has rejected pleas for fairer terms of trade, angering both Democrats and Republicans.

President Trump himself has veered between sharp criticism of China on trade and lavish praise of Mr. Xi. He congratulated Mr. Xi on his “extraordinary elevation” at a leadership congress in October and likened him to a “king.”

Mr. Xi’s attitude toward China’s place in the world was echoed Tuesday in the state-run newspaper, Global Times, which proclaimed in an editorial that “the country must seize the day, must seize the hour.”

“Our country must not be disturbed by the outside world or lose our confidence as the West grows increasingly vigilant toward China,” it said.

In some respects, Mr. Xi’s move to extend his rule in tandem with his drive to make China a dominant global power should not have surprised the United States, Chinese analysts said.

“It is now clear Xi’s agenda to rebuild an Asian order with China at its center is here to stay,” said Hugh White, a scholar and former defense official in Australia who has argued that the United States must be prepared to share power with China in the Asia-Pacific region.

“I think Xi is impatient,” Mr. White added. “He wants China to be the predominant power in the Western Pacific. He wants to do it himself and for it to go down in history as his achievement. That makes him formidable.”

At the same time, analysts said, Mr. Trump has shown little interest in global institutions and ripped up an ambitious trade pact that included more than a dozen Asia-Pacific nations as one of his first acts in office.

“Xi is exploiting the space that America voluntarily abandoned,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University. In contrast, he said, “China speaks again and again of globalization as a good thing.”

Most worrying for the United States, analysts said, was the strategic competition emerging in Asia, where China is seeking to challenge American military dominance that has been the status quo since World War II.

“China’s military objective is to break through the first chain of islands,” said Mr. Cui, referring to the waters beyond Japan and Taiwan where the Chinese military wants to establish a presence.

Chinese military experts have also emphasized the importance of dominating nuclear, space and cyber technologies, said Phillip C. Saunders, a China expert at the National Defense University in Washington.

Their views mirror those of American strategists who also see these fields as critical to success in modern war, he said.

The Trump administration announced this month a new nuclear policy calling for revitalization of the nation’s nuclear arsenal to counter Russia and to a lesser degree China — an approach that has upset Beijing.

“Trump is obsessed with strategic forces,” Mr. Shi said. “He is determined to maintain American military predominance in face of China’s strategic buildup. That will make the relationship more profoundly confrontational.”

The United States has also tried to build a stronger “Indo-Pacific” coalition with Australia, India and Japan as a counterweight to China’s rise. The four democracies would increase military cooperation and invest in infrastructure to compete with Chinese projects in the region.

But Chinese analysts said that Beijing did not believe the effort would amount to much because the United States was unwilling to spend money on the projects.

“In the short term,” Mr. Shi said, “China does not care about it because the ability to form a real coalition is limited.”

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