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Will US-China relations change during Xi's third term?

William Yang Taipei
November 3, 2022

As tensions between China and the US endure, experts say the latest signals from the 20th Party Congress suggest it's unlikely that Beijing will soften its stance.

China | Xi Jinping in Yan'an
There were few signs of relations thawing in the messages emanating from China's recently held National CongressImage: Yan Yan/Xinhua /AP/picture alliance

As President Xi Jinping embarks upon a third term, there is little sign of a thawing in relations between Beijing and Washington. Indeed, the relationship between the global powers has been particularly strained in recent years, but it took another turn for the worse when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August.

Last week, Xi said Beijing and Washington needed to find ways to "get along," adding that it's important for China and the US to strengthen cooperation and communication for global stability and certainty. "China is willing to work with the US to give mutual respect, coexist peacefully ... [and] find ways to get along in the new era," Xi wrote in a letter to the National Committee on US-China Relations.

Additionally, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held talks last month with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns. He warned the United States not to contain China's development and reiterated that Beijing and Washington wouldn't be able to "change each other."

'Critical juncture'

"China-US relations are at a critical juncture. The international community, in general, expects to see a stable development of this relationship," Wang said, according to a readout issued by the Chinese government. "The US should not attempt to communicate with China from a position of strength or to attempt to suppress and contain China's development."

The latest statements followed the conclusion of the Chinese Communist Party's 20th Party Congress, during which Xi highlighted external attempts to "blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure" on China and warned of the "choppy waters and dangerous storms" ahead.

Some analysts say there is no evidence that Xi is ready to soften his approach towards the US or that he believes doing so would help improve bilateral relations.

"To the contrary, the message emanating from the Party Congress was that China faces an increasingly hostile external environment and that it must persevere with international pressure to grow its strength until such a point that the rest of the world is forced to accommodate itself to China's power," Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, told DW.

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Others think Xi's speech and the work report show that China may be aware of the growing challenges it faces at home and abroad over the next five years. "These challenges stem in large part from its intensifying strategic competition with the US, which Beijing sees as both opportunities — as the balance of power shifted and US power declines relatively — and risks, as China is not yet strong enough to be the US's peer," Ivy Kwek, a fellow for China at the International Crisis Group (ICG), told DW. 

"There is also an elevated sense of threat on China's part, with heavy mentions of foreign interference in the report. Nevertheless, China's characterization of its standing in the world is still confident, even though it is more subdued compared to the 19th Party Congress," Kwek said.

No room for movement

Though White House officials say both sides are "working out the modalities" for a possible meeting between Xi and Biden, some experts say the olive branch would be meaningless if it doesn't come with assurances.

"The statement about improving relations was conditional on China's counterpart acceding to whatever China's demands and threats are without any indication that there would be a change in China's behavior or a reciprocal measure that would recognize that other countries have interests," Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore and a former US defense official, told DW.

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"I didn't see any indication that there was accommodation occurring in Beijing or reassurances being offered. It's very performative. Every time there is a discussion about that, Chinese official statements are very clear that China will not compromise one inch in any of its disputes, which really disincentivizes dialogue," he said.

Thompson said China's relationship with the United States and other countries had now entered a period of "consequence management."

"The era of competition is pretty clear in the minds of China's major trading partners, and the question is: How are those countries going to compete?" he said. "I think it's going to continue to be the combination of self-investment. And that's been the Biden administration's approach."

Emphasis on self-reliance and decoupling

An area where experts foresee competition between China and the US to intensify is technology as Washington introduced a series of export control measures to prevent Chinese companies from acquiring advanced semiconductor chips and relevant equipment without licenses.

In response to the Biden administration's moves, during the Party Congress Xi urged China to increase self-reliance on technology and supply chains. He highlighted the importance of Beijing's focusing on basic research and innovation in key areas.

"Xi Jinping is pretty convinced that they are going to have to decisively try to go alone, and the old model, where they would learn from the West and technological cooperation would eventually benefit China, is not going to work for them anymore," Dexter Roberts, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told DW.

"He is convinced that China must become far more self-reliant in technology, but I think that's going to be very difficult if not impossible. I think it will accelerate the process of decoupling. We are already seeing big multinationals that are telling their suppliers that they need to diversify out of China," he said.

Roberts said the decoupling and sanctions were happening because of the hostility between China and the United States. "The more that Xi Jinping says we are going to fight and there is a struggle ahead, the more politicians will react and say this is a person we can't trust," he said. "He wants to fight, and it's self-reinforcing. I think the hostility will get worse with decoupling."

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'Diplomacy with Chinese characteristics'

Apart from competition in the core technology sector, Kwek, from ICG, said China would also try to gain control over the global narrative by promoting what it calls "major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics."

"Beijing is attempting to distinguish itself from, and to delegitimize, what it sees as Washington's approach to international affairs," she said. "It insists that it practices 'true multilateralism' — noninterfering and never seeking hegemony — as opposed to what it called 'unilateral, hegemonic and exclusive' US behaviors."

During his speech at the Party Congress, Xi said China would "remain firm in pursuing an independent foreign policy of peace" and "never seek hegemony or engage in expansion."

Kwek said this was part of a trend. "China is increasingly investing more into projecting a more positive image for itself to increase its global influence and win friends," she said. "The recently launched Global Development Initiative and Global Security Initiative being the case in point."

Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, told DW that, as the Party Congress reflects rthe current state of US-China relations. "Part of the recognition, as the relationship between China and the US has been reset, is that both sides are on the same wavelength as they say this is a more competitive relationship," Yang said.

But, with national security being the dominant theme throughout the 20th Party Congress, Yang said the bilateral relationship would be largely viewed through this perspective. "Everything now is being reflected through the national security lens," he said.

Edited by: John Silk