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Xi Warns Against New Cold War as Biden Team Reviews Strategy

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 1/26/2021 Bloomberg News
Xi Jinping wearing a suit and tie: Xi Jinping, China's president, speaks during a news conference with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, not pictured, at Maximos mansion in Athens, Greece, on Monday, Nov. 11, 2019. © Bloomberg Xi Jinping, China's president, speaks during a news conference with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, not pictured, at Maximos mansion in Athens, Greece, on Monday, Nov. 11, 2019.

(Bloomberg) -- President Xi Jinping called on the world to abandon “ideological prejudice” and shun an “outdated Cold-War mentality” as he signaled that China will continue to forge its own path regardless of western criticism.

It’s vital to stay committed to international law and international rules “instead of staying committed to supremacy,” Xi told the Davos Agenda event on Monday, in his first address since Joe Biden entered the White House. “Confrontation will lead us to a dead end,” he said, and urged a return to mutual respect to help the recovery from the pandemic.

“To build small circles and start a new Cold War, to reject, threaten or intimidate others, to willfully impose decoupling, supply disruptions, or sanctions, or to create isolation or estrangement, will only push the world into division and even confrontation,” he said.

Xi’s speech had been widely anticipated for the tone it would set for relations between the world’s biggest economies over the next four years. Though Xi did not name Biden by name, many of his comments were clearly targeted at the new U.S. administration.

Xi repeated many of the same talking points about multilateralism and “win-win” outcomes that he deployed in his last address to Davos four years ago, days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, but he also signaled that he does not intend to change course in the face of U.S. pressure.

“Each country is unique with its own history, culture and social system, and none is superior to the other,” Xi said, warning against imposing a “hierarchy on human civilization” or forcing one’s own systems onto others.

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China’s leaders have long embraced Davos as a forum to showcase economic reforms while sidestepping difficult questions about politics. Former Premier Li Peng visited in 1992 as China sought to attract foreign investors in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

Xi signaled his desire to put aside political issues which have helped drive a deterioration in ties with Western countries, including his abolition of term limits and use of “re-education” camps in the far western region of Xinjiang. “No two leaves are identical,” Xi told his online audience.

Xi’s desire to set aside political differences won’t be an easy sell. On the campaign trail, Biden said China’s policies in Xinjiang were “unconscionable” and even branded Xi a “thug.” The European Union also officially labeled China as a “systemic rival” in 2019, although it went on to sign an investment deal with the Asian nation in the final days of 2020.


Video: China-Taiwan tensions rise days into Biden presidency (Reuters)

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“Xi’s efforts to pitch China as a force for multilateralism is likely received with more skepticism today than perhaps it was in 2017,” Patricia Kim, a Wilson Center global fellow, told Bloomberg TV on Tuesday. Kim cited China’s initial handling of Covid-19 and resistance to global investigation of the virus’s origins, along with its behavior toward Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan.

“Global context has dramatically changed for China,” she said. “Since 2017, China’s global image has really plummeted.”

White House Reaction

China hopes the Biden administration “will draw lessons from consequences of the wrong policies of the previous administration, look at China and China-U.S. relations in an objective and rational light, and take positive and constructive policies towards China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a briefing on Tuesday.

His comments came after White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that Xi’s remarks “don’t change anything” about how the administration is approaching the relationship with Beijing.

Psaki said Biden’s view is that the U.S. needs to “play a better defense” when it comes to protecting American technology and said the administration will continue to review key issues such as the investments by Chinese companies and the blacklisting of Chinese telecommunications companies.

“Those complex reviews are just starting, and I noted, they will need to go through the interagency so the State Department, the Treasury Department, a number of others who will review how we move forward,” Psaki said. “We’re starting from an approach of patience as it relates to our relationship with China.”

High-Level Dialogue

During his speech, Xi hinted at his desire to reestablish high-level dialogue with the incoming administration, calling for countries to “enhance political trust through strategic communication.” The Chinese leader succeeded in building a cordial personal relationship with Trump even as the two powers descended into a trade war. That effort began with a trip to the former president’s Mar-a-Lago estate in April 2017 and led to the development of official dialogue tracks which eventually disintegrated over the course of Trump’s presidency.

By the time Biden was sworn-in, more than 100 officially organized exchange forums had been disbanded, companies like Huawei Technologies have been hit with export curbs and tariffs imposed on almost $500 billion of products. While Biden hasn’t given many specifics on how he’ll deal with these and other flashpoints, he has signaled a shift from confrontation to competition.

In his speech, Xi steered clear of the triumphal tone evident in some of his domestic addresses in recent years. In a speech last September, Xi said China’s pandemic response demonstrated the “superiority” of China’s political system. In others, he has argued that “China is moving closer to the center of the world stage.”

Still, the president spoke from a position of strength: China has been the only major economy to report growth amid the pandemic last year, and economists are forecasting an expansion of 8.3% this year, compared with 4.1% in the U.S.

(Updates with China Foreign Ministry comment.)

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