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China accuses U.S. of containment and warns of potential conflict

Mark Schiefelbein/AP
Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang waves as he arrives for a press conference held on the sidelines of the annual meeting of China's National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, Tuesday, March 7, 2023.

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BEIJING - Chinese leader Xi Jinping name-checked the United States in remarks during the annual session of parliament under way in Beijing this week, saying it was leading Western countries in an effort to encircle and suppress China.

The rare explicit comment was followed on Tuesday by a barrage of scorn and criticism aimed squarely at Washington from China's new foreign minister and former ambassador to the U.S., Qin Gang.

Analysts said the verbal blitz may signal a new level of unhappiness from Beijing with the United States, and could foreshadow fresh policy actions.

U.S. accused of 'containment'

On Monday, Xi visited a breakout session of delegates to the legislative advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, which meets along side the National People's Congress.

"Western countries led by the U.S. have implemented comprehensive containment, encirclement and suppression against us, bringing unprecedented severe challenges to our country's development," Xi was quoted as saying.

The U.S. has, in recent months, broadened its crackdown on China's semiconductor industry, and looked to expand and revitalize its alliances in Asia. In addition to the Quad, it is set to announce deepened cooperation with AUKUS, a trilateral security pact it formed in 2021, and just last month announced expanded access to bases in the Philippines.

Top leaders in China rarely single out other countries or leaders by name for criticism, preferring to leave it implicit or refer vaguely to "some countries" or "individual countries."

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Qin Gang leveled criticism directly at the United States for its policies on China, Taiwan, the Indo-Pacific, and Ukraine, to name a few. He even blasted the recent string of interest rate hikes by the U.S. Federal Reserve, designed to curb inflation at home, for creating debt crises in other countries.

"The U.S. claims it wants to 'compete to win' with China, and does not seek conflict. But in fact, the so-called 'competition' by the U.S. is all-round containment and suppression, a zero-sum game of life and death," Qin said.

Qin also slammed the U.S. for talking about respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity when it comes to Ukraine but not Taiwan, a self-governed island that Beijing says is part of China. "Why does the U.S. ask China not to provide weapons to Russia while it keeps selling arms to Taiwan?" Qin said.

The Biden administration has repeatedly said it intends to compete with China and wants dialogue to put "guardrails" around the relationship, so that it does not veer into conflict. Qin said U.S. demands were unreasonable.

"When the U.S. says it wants to 'install guardrails and have 'no conflict' in China-U.S. relations, it really means that the U.S. requires China not to fight back when hit or scolded, but this cannot be done!" he said.

Qin blamed the deterioration in China-U.S. relations on Washington, and said it was incumbent upon the United States to turn things around.

"If the United States does not hit the brakes, but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing, and there will surely be conflict and confrontation," he said.

Level of unhappiness could lead to 'substantive actions'

Manoj Kewalramani, with the Takshashila Institution in India, follows the language of China's leaders and propaganda closely. He said the explicit naming of America by Xi was a signal of the level of unhappiness.

"It's like when you're angry with your spouse, or your kid, you start middle-naming them, you know?" he said.

Kewalramani said the balloon crisis angered Chinese officials and may have been the trigger for this shift. Still, he did not think China's policy toward the U.S. would change substantively.

But Scott Kennedy, a China hand at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is not so sure.

"Nothing Xi Jinping or the Chinese leadership in general says about foreign policy or the U.S. in particular is by accident," he said.

"By directly pointing to the U.S. as the source of major problems around the world, by name, you feel like that sets the possibility for China to potentially take substantive actions that they haven't been willing to take before," he said.

It also "sets a tone that other officials within China will have to follow."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.