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Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with then-US vice-president Joe Biden in 2013. Now that Biden is the American president, Beijing has indicated that it seeks to reset the fraught relationship between the two countries. Pool photo: AP

China-US tension: Xi tells World Economic Forum competition is for pursuing excellence – not killing off a rival

  • Since the Trump administration ended, Beijing has indicated its desire to reset or salvage China’s relationship with the US in several ways
  • China’s envoy to Washington has echoed Xi’s appeal for cooperation in a state TV appearance

With just a few glimpses of the possible trajectory of Sino-US relations in the Biden era, Chinese President Xi Jinping acknowledged there was rivalry between the two nations, but suggested that interplay between the two nations should be more like fair competition than a fight to eliminate the other.

It is the latest move by Beijing to salvage China-US bilateral relations, which over the past four tumultuous years have plunged to their lowest point in decades. US President Joe Biden’s picks to handle China issues indicate in the first week of his presidency that the US hardline stance will continue.
Addressing a foreign audience via a recorded video to the World Economic Forum on Monday, and with Biden notably absent, Xi said antagonism and confrontation would only hurt everyone and ideological confrontations should be put aside.

“We must advocate fair competition, like competing with each other for excellence in a racing field, not beating each other in a wrestling arena,” he said.

Xi said international relations should be regulated through “proper institutions and rules” and urged an increase in political trust via communications .

As soon as Biden was inaugurated, Beijing expressed a wish to work with the new administration to reset ties that had been damaged by confrontation and rivalry across almost every sector, including technology, military and trade.

Cui Tiankai, Beijing’s envoy to Washington, told the Chinese state broadcaster on Tuesday that differences between the US and China would persist but he offered that the two nations “should not justify confrontation but provide motivation for cooperation”.

“If China and the US are able to establish competition and cooperation, it would be the healthy relationship,” Cui said.

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Even though Xi did not name the US in his speech, analysts said his remarks, and those of Cui, showed that Beijing was aware of the competition between the two nations but wanted to manage it.

The US has deemed China a threat. In a sign that position might continue, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday that Biden would take “an approach of patience” and multilateral steps towards engagement with China, including evaluating current tariffs and other actions taken by his predecessor.

Portraying relations with China as “strategic competition” and “a defining feature for the 21st century”, Psaki said China was engaged in conduct “that hurts American workers, blunts our technological edge and threatens our alliances and our influence in international organisations”.

Xi and Biden have not yet held phone conversations, but the new US president has talked with allies, and countering the rise of China has been a frequently mentioned topic in those exchanges.

Shi Yinhong, a professor on international relations with Renmin University, said Psaki had so far sent “the most remarkable signal” from the Biden team and it was dismissive of Beijing’s call.

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He said Biden’s China team had continued America’s tough stance on issues core to China’s interests and had extended US military posturing in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.

“Biden’s team may refrain from responding to Beijing’s message until it works out a clear China policy in the coming two or three months, while projecting severe competition with China,” Shi said.

“It may not be as wild as Trump last year but would be much tougher than expected,” he said.

Lu Xiang, a research fellow on US studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China would be patient while Biden took time to establish his policy on China.

“The key for bilateral relations is to work out the rules to govern healthy competition and keep malignant competition in check in some fields,” Lu said.

“Meanwhile, China should closely monitor any adventurism by the new administration,” he said, referring to Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s remarks last week that Trump’s hardline policy on China was right but the tactics were wrong.
In his World Economic Forum speech, Xi pledged to foster a business environment “based on market principles, governed by law and up to international standards”.

“China will promote institutional opening-up that covers rules, regulations, management and standards,” he said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Xi suggests rivalry ‘should be fair like a sporting contest’