China’s leader took oblique potshots at the United States and its foreign policies Tuesday, cautioning in a U.N. address that the world must “not fall into the trap of a clash of civilizations” — remarks played minutes after delegates heard the American president insist that the United Nations “hold China accountable” for how it handled the emergence of the coronavirus.
“Major countries should act like major countries,” Xi Jinping said in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, a speech made remotely and recorded in advance because the pandemic prevented leaders from convening as they have for decades. The virus first emerged in China early this year and has spread around the world, killing nearly 1 million people.
Xi, China’s president and the leader of its Communist Party, cast the fight against the virus as an important exercise in international cooperation, an opportunity to “join hands and be prepared to meet even more global challenges.”
“COVID-19 reminds us that the economic globalization is an indisputable reality and a historical trend,” Xi said. “Burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich in the face of economic globalization or trying to fight it with Don Quixote’s lance goes against the trend of history. Let this be clear: The world will never return to isolation.”
Such remarks, while not naming U.S. President Donald Trump, are highly critical of him and his “America First” philosophy, which goes against China’s public stance on how diplomacy should be managed. In reality, China often acts unilaterally in affairs both domestic and international.
Earlier in the day, Trump used his own U.N. speech to roundly condemn Xi’s government for what the American president frequently calls “the China virus,” a term he used again Tuesday. He referred to the virus as the “invisible enemy.” Many consider the very term “China virus” to be racist.
Though Trump had lavish praise for Xi early in his term, two key issues — a tariff dispute and the emergence of coronavirus — have helped cause his administration to take a more hardline attitude toward the Chinese government.
“The United Nations must hold China accountable for their actions,” Trump said in his own speech.
China has a longtime practice of reflexively rejecting any criticism of its policies. Tuesday was no exception. While Xi, being prerecorded and not there, could not rebut what Trump said, his U.N. ambassador was on site in the General Assembly chamber and responded directly while introducing the Xi video.
“At this moment, the world needs more solidarity and cooperation, and not a confrontation,” Zhang Jun said. “We need to increase mutual confidence and trust, and not the spreading of political virus. China resolutely rejects the baseless accusation against China.”
Xi spoke at a historical moment in which China is working to manage its staggering — and staggeringly complex — military, economic and political rise while confronting the aggressive containment strategies of the world’s current superpower, the United States, and its friends and allies.
“Xi Jinping has his work cut out for him at the General Assembly,” said Mike Mazza, a China analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He pointed to tensions with Europe over trade and investment, climate and human rights, in addition to the Trump administration’s more consistently confrontational approach to China.
Xi has failed to leverage ill feelings between many European leaders and Trump, while a potential detente with Japan has stalled. Relations with Australia have nosedived over allegations of spying and political manipulation and calls for an investigation into the Chinese origins of the coronavirus outbreak, Mazza said.
These troubles are, “by and large, problems of its own making,” Mazza said of China.
As aggressive as Beijing can seem to its neighbors when using its expanding military and powerful economy to carve out what it sees as its natural sphere of influence in Asia, this is a fragile moment in what’s often seen as China’s inevitable rise as a superpower.
Beijing has faced criticism over the continuing fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in Wuhan province late last year. Some say Beijing initially attempted to cover up the outbreak before seeking to take advantage of its response for public-relations ends.
There’s outrage over China’s severe restriction of civil rights in Hong Kong following its imposition on the semi-autonomous city of a sweeping national security law, and over widespread accusations of mass detentions and cultural genocide against Muslims in the Xinjiang region. And there’s wariness also over China’s rising pressure and military threats against Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy that Beijing claims as its own territory.
Meanwhile, China’s moves to claim nearly the entire South China Sea have led to friction with the United States and with Beijing’s neighbors to the south, while a decades-long border dispute with India erupted this year into deadly brawling between the rivals’ troops and the firing of shots for the first time in decades.
All this has undercut arguments that favor engagement with China as a trade war between Beijing, the world’s second-biggest economy, and Washington, the biggest, continues to simmer.
“Xi will find a very mixed international environment when he addresses the UNGA. Most of the democracies which had previously been very supportive of China’s modernization and development are getting uncomfortable with how Xi is steering the rise of China,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
The United States and China are now “locked on a collision course that could potentially result in dangerous military conflict,” said Brookings Institution China analyst Cheng Li. An immediate goal of Xi’s will be to “showcase how China has stepped up to the plate to call for multilateralism and address global concerns … while the United States has increasingly left a gaping void in global leadership.”
Xi, in doing that with his speech, insisted that China under his rule isn’t veering into the imperialism his communist government has long condemned.
“We will never seek hegemony, expansion or sphere of influence,” he said. “We have no intention of fighting either a Cold War or a hot one with any country.”
Foster Klug, AP’s news director for the Koreas, Japan, Australia and the South Pacific, has covered Asia at the annual UNGA meetings since 2005. Ted Anthony was AP correspondent and news editor in Beijing from 2001 to 2004 and director of Asia-Pacific News from 2014 to 2018.