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‘We are making big strides to the front of the world,’ China’s Xi asserts

Delegates applaud China's President Xi Jinping after he delivered a speech during the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 20, 2018.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

Xi Jinping reached deep into history on Tuesday, surveying thousands of years of Chinese contributions to culture, philosophy and engineering as he positioned himself and his people as legitimate heirs to a mantle of world leadership and influence.

The Chinese President did not mention the United States in an important political address at the closing of the country’s annual legislative meetings, in which he stripped away term limits and cleared the path for his long-term rule. But his meaning was clear: China is returning to its historic position at the global fore, possessed of the confidence to take on and, perhaps, surpass the world’s reigning superpower.

“We are making big strides to the front of the world,” Mr. Xi said, adding: “We have a strong determination to take our place in the world.”

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To those watching, the subtext was clear.

“Instead of co-operative partners, China and the U.S. are now more like competitors −actually, they are each other’s biggest competitors,” said Xing Yue, a researcher at the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

“I do wonder how people can still hide behind the excuse that China means to be a team player in the existing order,” said Victor Shih, a UC San Diego expert on Chinese politics, in a tweet.

“No, China is a revisionist power, and other countries must decide how to deal with it.”

China implores Trump to not be 'led by emotions', avoid a trade war as tariffs loom

In the United States, government defence analysts have begun labelling China a strategic competitor, Congress is pursuing legislation that could be used to choke off some forms of Chinese investment and the Donald Trump White House is contemplating a broadside to Beijing under the guise of Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, a rarely used measure to punish other countries’ “unfair trade practices.”

At the same time, the turbulence in Washington has shaken faith in U.S. leadership of the liberal democratic order. For China, it all presents opportunity.

“Right now, the international situation and domestic environment are undergoing fundamental and complex changes, and our development is in the midst of strategic opportunity,” Mr. Xi said. China has “favourable conditions unheard of in the past,” he said.

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Mr. Xi pledged China as a different kind of leader, one allergic to hegemony and dedicated to “mankind’s peace and development.

“Only those who are in the habit of threatening others will perceive others as a threat,” he said.

Mr. Xi has, at the same time, sought to legitimize China as a global power. In his turn to history, he said China created philosophers such as Confucius and Mencius; inventions such as paper making and gunpowder; feats of engineering including the Great Wall and ancient systems of irrigation; works of literature including Han Dynasty poetry and Qing dynasty novels; and great literary epics whose roots, historians say, lie not in imperial China but in Tibet, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Chinese contributions “have made a great difference in the development history of mankind’s civilization,” Mr. Xi said.

China’s history, too, he said, makes it the rightful owner of Taiwan, a self-governing territory that Beijing claims to rule. “The Chinese people and the Chinese nation have a shared conviction, which is not a single inch of our land will be and can be ceded from China,” he said.

Any move toward independence there, he said, is “doomed to fail” and “will be met with the condemnation and the punishment of history.”

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Mr. Xi’s unusually sharp language is instructive: In the first few years of his rule, he reserved such terminology for the vigorously prosecuted war on corruption that became the centrepiece of his five-year term. He is now entering his second five years with a greater focus on China’s place on the international stage.

“Though he didn’t explicitly point to the U.S., I think he was trying to use his speech as a channel to reproach and warn the U.S.,” said Zhang Wensheng, a professor with the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University. “He obviously sees challenges on the road to securing national integrity in coming years. His speech shows the promise he is determined to fulfill.”

Indeed, even attempts to cast China as a co-operative partner with the United States by Li Keqiang, the Chinese Premier sidelined under Mr. Xi, did little to dispel fears that Beijing and Washington, each helmed by demagogic leaders, are on a collision course.

Mr. Li, in an annual meeting with the international press on Tuesday at the conclusion of the National People’s Congress, emphasized China’s plans to further open itself to the world.

“We will also fully open up our manufacturing sector. There will be no mandatory requirement for technology transfer, and intellectual property rights will be better protected,” he pledged. China will simplify foreign investment laws and shorten the “negative list” of sectors off-limits to foreign investment, he added.

But China sits second from the bottom in a ranking from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development of 68 countries based on their discrimination against foreign investors. And under Mr. Xi, the Chinese government has pursued a sweeping “China 2025” campaign to make itself a high-tech manufacturing power − a national attempt to supplant the expertise of other countries.

Against that backdrop, Mr. Li’s words fell on skeptical ears.

“I’m certain as the sun rises in the east that no one in the Trump administration will take those kind of vague pledges seriously. China needs to walk the walk, not just talk the talk,” said Scott Kennedy, director of the Project on Chinese Business and Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

But he warned about the risks of miscalculation.

“Both sides see the other as a paper tiger, making escalation a big possibility.”

With a report from Alexandra Li

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