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Top Chinese diplomats give conciliatory signals while demanding respect from the U.S.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks at a news conference after restoring diplomatic ties with Kiribati on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S. September 27, 2019.

Mark Kauzlarich | Reuters

China’s top two foreign ministers kept to a conciliatory tone this week in public remarks about relations with the U.S., amid increasingly fraught tensions between the world’s two largest economies.

“China’s US policy remains unchanged. We are still willing to grow China-US relations with goodwill and sincerity,” State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Thursday, according to an official English translation of his remarks published on the Chinese foreign ministry’s website. 

“Some friends in the US might have become suspicious or even wary of a growing China,” Yi said. “I’d like to stress here again that China never intends to challenge or replace the US, or have full confrontation with the US. What we care most about is to improve the livelihood of our people.”

Yi was speaking Thursday via video at a China-U.S. think tank event organized by the China Public Diplomacy Association, Peking University and Renmin University of China, according to the foreign ministry. 

President Xi Jinping has underlined on many occasions that we have a thousand reasons to make the China-US relationship a success, and none whatsoever to wreck it.

Wang Yi

State Councilor and Foreign Minister of China

A day earlier, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng said China remained optimistic and ready to work together with the U.S., according to an official English version of his remarks on the Chinese foreign ministry website.The site said Le was participating in a video conference on U.S.-China relations co-hosted by the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and the Asia Society, which was founded by John D. Rockefeller 3rd.

The comments also emphasized the need to respect China’s decisions. The remarks come as some Chinese foreign ministry representatives in countries from France to Sri Lanka have taken a significantly more aggressive turn, both in person and on Twitter, ironically a social media platform banned within mainland China. Some analysts have dubbed the approach “wolf warrior diplomacy,” reflecting nationalistic Chinese action movies of a similar name.

“Neither China nor the US can mold the other in one’s own image, and China-US relations should not be driven by ideologies,” Le said. 

“I also find it hard to understand: why does the US always seek to change the other country in state-to-state relations? Why does it try to impose its own ideology on others? What is the point of stopping a country from pursuing its development path that has proved successful? There are essential differences between China and the United States in their social systems,” Le said, criticizing recent efforts by some in America to “drag China into US election politics.”

The U.S. presidential election is set for November. In the last four years, a slew of issues have rocked the two countries’ relationship, ranging from trade to Beijing’s increasing control of Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region which has enjoyed far more democratic freedoms than the mainland.

Great challenge for U.S.-China ties

Yi said Thursday that the China-U.S. relationship “is faced with the most severe challenge since the establishment of diplomatic ties.” 

He criticized current U.S. policy on China as reaching a “point of paranoia” that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “It seems as if every Chinese investment is politically driven, every Chinese student is a spy, and every cooperation initiative is a scheme with hidden agenda,” Yi said.

The U.S. established formal diplomatic ties with China in 1979, and eventually helped pave the way for China to enter the World Trade Organization in 2001. The Asian country became the world’s second-largest economy in 2010.

U.S.-China tensions began to escalate about two years ago as U.S. President Donald Trump‘s administration applied tariffs on billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese exports. Although many disagree with the effectiveness of the strategy, it is seen as a way to begin addressing longstanding complaints about unfair Chinese business practices, partly due to the dominance of the state in its economy. 

The dispute has since spilled into technology and finance, increasing concerns of “decoupling,” or stricter separation rather than integration between the two major world economies. Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping has pushed a more nationalistic agenda and sought to strengthen the control of the state.   

Call for cooperation on Covid-19

This week, both Yi and Le also called for more cooperation on fighting the coronavirus pandemic, rather than politicizing it. Officially called Covid-19, the disease first emerged late last year in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The virus has since infected more than 12 million people globally and killed over 548,000 people. The U.S. accounts for about a quarter of deaths and is the country most severely hit by the pandemic so far. 

Trump has blamed China for the virus and criticized the country’s influence on the World Health Organization, while Beijing has pushed back on implications the disease came from its country. This week, the Trump administration also began the yearlong process of withdrawing from the WHO.

The economic reality may prove more pressing in the short term for the world’s two largest economies. As governments around the world tried to limit the spread of the virus by restricting social activities, many expect global growth to contract this year. China has sought to increase foreign investment in its country, while businesses, including those from the U.S., have increasingly looked to tap the massive Chinese market. 

“President Xi Jinping has underlined on many occasions that we have a thousand reasons to make the China-US relationship a success, and none whatsoever to wreck it,” Yi said.

“Some say that China-US relations will not be able to return to its past,” he added. “But that should not mean ignoring the history altogether and starting all over again, let alone impractical decoupling. It should mean building on past achievements and keeping pace with the times.”

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