Observers who follow China’s path to become an emerging superpower can tell how the discourse of Chinese officials has been gradually and calculatedly changing. They can also see that these shifts have accelerated in recent years, especially since President Donald Trump came to power.
US-China relations have seen mounting trade and economic friction and tension, not to mention the series of economic sanctions imposed on Beijing. Beijing has been pushed to put in place a mechanism to limit the activities of foreign companies in response to US sanctions against Chinese companies, chief among them Huawei.
The measure reflects the extent of escalation in bilateral relations. The Chinese Ministry of Commerce has drawn up a “list of untrusted entities” that includes US companies that “undermine [China’s] national sovereignty, security and development interests to be undermined” and violate “international economic and commercial rules,” in response to Washington’s “bullying” of Chinese businesses.
If “the US arbitrarily imposes unwarranted unilateral actions, [China] will continue to take necessary measures to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese enterprises,” the ministry promised.
The feud between the two countries was further inflamed last August when US President Donald Trump set a deadline for TikTok to sell its US operations on charges that it was engaged in industrial and technological spying for Beijing.
In addition, the Chinese telco group Huawei has been blacklisted by US authorities, depriving it of the benefits of the American market and the sourcing of essential US technology and components for its phones.
The US has also looked to pressure Europeans to exclude Huawei from 5G Internet networks in the future. There are, of course, other political concerns, such as US relations with Taiwan and Hong Kong and its position on the issue of freedoms and human rights in China.
And then we have President Trump’s charges that China is deliberately withholding facts about the initial coronavirus epidemic which caused its spreading around the world. These are all accusations China officially denies and finds disturbing.
This is why the People’s Republic has gradually and very deliberately let go of its overly prudent diplomacy in handling relations with Washington. The main evidence of this development is the statement of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Xi said his country would not allow its sovereignty, security and development interests to be undercut in any way. The Chinese people should not be taken lightly, he said.
“Any act of unilateralism, monopoly and bullying would not work and would only lead to a dead end,” Xi said, quoting Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China, as saying, “Let the world know that the people of China are now organized and should not be underestimated.”
Xi’s speech didn’t make any direct reference to the US. However, the stark contrast between the two great economic powers is no mystery to the world.
The speech was given as part of the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the deployment of the People’s Volunteer Army on the Korean Peninsula to help North Korea during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. The US had a lot to do with it.
A highlight of the Chinese president’s speech on this occasion was his call to step up the modernization of China’s defense and armed forces. “Here cannot be a strong motherland without a strong army,” he said.
WThe idea is to establish early deterrence by reminding rivals that China’s power is not only economic but also military.
hat this signals is the awareness among China’s leaders, who typically are not inclined to speak in military terms about Chinese power and focus on development plans and ambitions, of the strategic threats to China’s fast rise to prominence and the challenges that may put it on the path to military intervention or, as the strategic literature puts it, a war of necessity.
We know that China is not at all inclined to hasten confrontation with the West, particularly the US. It relies on its economic power to build up strength and increase its global competitiveness without risking bloody wars with the major powers. But its discreet ascent gives the US a bad feeling. The Americans perceive a real danger from China’s growing power.
I still think that the Chinese president has not given up on pushing back the confrontation with the US. But the strategic landscape thrown up by the Covid-19 outbreak and the emergence of China’s role as a power capable of meeting major challenges and helping the rest of the world requires a rather different kind of engagement, especially with the US president’s repeated mention of American military superiority.
This attitude may have prompted Chinese officials to drop their prudence and talk about the military part of the country’s overall strength. The idea is to establish early deterrence by reminding rivals that China’s power is not only economic but also military.
This political tactic is meant to dampen danger and avoid miscalculation by others. A word of prevention, not escalation. The Chinese president does not want his country to look weak. He neither wants to remain silent about threats. So he seeks to put them off by promoting his country’s strength and willingness to respond to any challenge. This by itself is a shift in Chinese political discourse.
Yet it is hardly an escalation. China has not abandoned its peaceful approach and calm development. But it is highlighting a strategic approach or a different tactic in managing the burgeoning crisis with the US through early deterrence, showing that Chinese power is not only about economic might.
Dr. Salem AlKetbi is aUAE political analyst and former Federal National Council candidate