The U.S. effort to rally the world against China risks sparking a “new Cold War,” Chinese President Xi Jinping warned Monday in his most striking comments to date on the increasingly bitter power struggle unfolding between Washington and Beijing.
In a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Mr. Xi seemed to take direct aim at President Biden, who has made headlines by expressing a desire to convene an international summit of democracies during his first year in office to nurture a unified front against authoritarian regimes such as that in China.
Mr. Xi, who addressed world leaders via video, warned that such efforts will lead to economic division and could pave the way for armed conflict — stark remarks amid uncertainty over how the Biden administration plans to proceed with the bare-knuckle U.S. policy toward China that defined the Trump era.
Mr. Xi suggested that the Chinese Communist Party intends to treat any American-led push to isolate his country, whether engineered by a Republican or Democratic administration, as overtly hostile.
“To build small circles or start a new Cold War, to reject, threaten or intimidate others, to willfully impose decoupling, supply disruptions or sanctions, and to create isolation or estrangement will only push the world into division and even confrontation,” the Chinese president said.
“We cannot tackle common challenges in a divided world, and confrontation will lead us to a dead end,” he said, according to China’s Global Times newspaper.
Mr. Xi did not explicitly mention the U.S. during his 30-minute speech, but the tone of his remarks left no doubt that he was singling out Washington. “The misguided approach of antagonism and confrontation, be it in the form of a Cold War, hot war, trade war or tech war, would eventually hurt all countries’ interests,” he said.
He delivered the high-profile speech less than a week after Mr. Biden was sworn into office, and it could foreshadow a tense, complex dynamic between the two leaders.
During his presidential campaign, Mr. Biden referred to Mr. Xi as a “thug,” and many foreign policy specialists expect that the new president will follow the lead of President Trump and take a hard-line stance toward Beijing on issues such as intellectual property, trade and human rights.
Mr. Biden faces what a growing number of analysts describe as a long-term, multipronged Chinese government strategy to undermine America’s status as the world’s leading superpower. On the military front, China has challenged the U.S. in the Pacific by expanding its territorial claims in key strategic areas such as the South China Sea.
The Pentagon has responded by routinely conducting “freedom of navigation operations” in the region. Mr. Biden and newly minted Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have given clear indications that they intend to continue those operations, as have Pentagon leaders who oversee America’s increasing military presence in the Pacific.
“The United States military will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said after a New Year’s Eve operation through the highly sensitive Taiwan Strait, delivering a clear warning that America is prepared to act if a clash breaks out over Hong Kong, Taiwan or other flashpoints.
China’s most aggressive offensive has been on the economic front.
Beijing’s “Belt and Road” initiative has led to heavy Chinese investment around the world and new financial partnerships between China and a host of other nations, including some traditional U.S. allies.
China’s gross domestic product, at an estimated $13.4 trillion, is just two-thirds that of the United States, but its position as a rising powerhouse has been increasingly difficult to deny since 2013, when Mr. Xi announced the Belt and Road program.
The campaign has since grown into a vast web of deals, contracts, grants and loans. Beijing has doled out well over $100 billion in loans to more than 100 countries to finance roads, bridges, ports and rail lines.
U.S. officials accuse China of engaging in predatory lending by offering loans it knows nations will have trouble repaying, only to offer relief later in exchange for control over coveted natural resources. Beijing sharply denies such accusations, but China has emerged over the past decade as a go-to source for loans by cash-strapped countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and parts of Europe.
China critics say Beijing has been using its status as an emerging financial powerhouse for political leverage against economically weaker nations. Some analysts argue that Beijing is also increasingly eager to try to exert such leverage over Washington.
Last week, Beijing slapped sanctions on 28 former Trump administration officials, denying them the ability to do business in China or even travel there.
Gordon Chang, a China hawk and Gatestone Institute distinguished senior fellow, said over the weekend that the move by the Chinese Foreign Ministry should be interpreted as a warning to Mr. Biden.
“Clearly, what China’s trying to do is not only slap people on the way out the door, but it’s also sending a message to the Biden team that if you cross us, we will deny you lucrative business opportunities once you leave office,” Mr. Chang said on Fox News.
Other analysts argue that a full-blown “cold war” between Washington and Beijing is already in motion and has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left the two nations pointing fingers at each other.
“We now have underway a full-blown cold war between the U.S. and China,” Clifford D. May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank known for its hawkish foreign policy positions, told The Washington Times last month.
“This war actually started years ago,” Mr. May, who writes a regular opinion column for The Times, said in an interview. “But America’s elites, Republican and Democrat, have been in denial about it considering how much Wall Street is invested in China and how much U.S. consumers have been accustomed to cheap goods from China often made from exploited, if not slave, labor.”
Although he credited the Trump administration with engineering a clear-eyed shift in U.S. policy toward China even before COVID-19 hit, Mr. May said the U.S. establishment has been dangerously slow to let go of false and long-held beliefs that China will liberalize its political system and moderate its behavior on the world stage as its wealth grows through ties to America and the U.S.-backed global economic order.
China hawks say that has not happened and that Mr. Biden now faces difficult questions on whether to proceed with Mr. Trump’s hard-edged approach or seek a reversal toward the moderate and much softer posture the U.S. embraced when he was vice president.
The Biden administration and its Western allies likely will seek a balance between working with China and limiting its ability to dominate the global economy.
Earlier this month, China struck a major investment deal with the European Union, though the agreement has not been finalized and still must be approved by the European Parliament. At the same time, the EU has proposed a massive “trans-Atlantic agenda” that would allow it and the U.S. to write international technology standards, potentially elbowing China away from the table.
Mr. Xi on Monday warned against any major economic efforts that don’t include Beijing.
“Multilateralism is about having international affairs addressed through consultation and the future of the world decided by everyone working together,” the Chinese president said, adding that “to beggar thy neighbor, to go it alone, and to slip into arrogant isolation will always fail.”
⦁ Guy Taylor and Valerie Richardson contributed to this report.