China on Tuesday (March 7) said its relationship with the United States is at risk of derailing if Washington continues “on the wrong path”, adding that the latter is exploiting Taiwan, among other tactics, to suppress China’s rise.
Foreign Minister Qin Gang said that the US has a “seriously distorted” view of China which is causing the entire relationship to deviate from its normal course.
“If the US does not step on the brakes and continues to go down the wrong road, no amount of guardrails will be able to stop the derailment. The relationship will inevitably fall into conflict and confrontation. Who will bear the catastrophic consequences?”
The remarks were Qin’s strongest on US-China ties to date, and appear to take aim at the US administration’s characterisation of how it handles the relationship: that both sides will compete but guardrails are in place to prevent it from veering into conflict.
Qin was speaking to about 200 journalists in his first press conference as foreign minister, on the sidelines of the annual parliamentary meetings in Beijing.
A former ambassador to the US, Qin became foreign minister on Dec 30.
Using a sports metaphor, he accused the US of unfair competition, likening the country to an athlete trying to trip a competitor. The US had, for instance, announced new export curbs to cut off China’s access to high-tech US semiconductors.
“It’s not fair play but malicious competition,” he said, adding that getting the US-China relationship right is “not optional”.
Qin also hit out at the US for being hypocritical on sovereignty and territorial integrity, supporting Ukraine during the Russian invasion but refusing to acknowledge that Taiwan is Chinese territory while continuing to supply weapons to the island.
Pulling out a copy of the Chinese Constitution, he quoted a paragraph that refers to Taiwan as a part of China. Beijing sees the self-ruling island as a renegade province that needs to be retaken, by force if necessary.
“If the US truly expects peace in the Taiwan Strait, then they should stop exploiting Taiwan to suppress China,” he said.
“Mishandling it will shake the very foundations of US-China relations.”
But he took a softer tone when talking about the American people, referencing those whom he met across the country when serving as ambassador.
“Whenever I think of them, I think that what determines China-US relations should be the common interests, shared responsibilities and friendship of the two peoples, rather than US domestic politics and hysterical neo-McCarthyism,” he said.
The US-China relationship has had a rocky ride in recent years, with both countries locked in a trade and tech war.
Beijing has also come under repeated criticism for what Washington and its allies say are human rights violations in the regions of Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. A visit in 2022 by then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province awaiting unification, further turned up the temperature.
While this seemed to have abated after a meeting by presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meeting in Bali last November, the uneasy calm was not to last.
Tensions escalated in February after American fighter jets shot down what Washington said was a surveillance balloon that had traversed across the continental US, but China insisted that the device had been used for scientific purposes and had been blown off course by strong winds.
The incident forced US top diplomat Anthony Blinken to cancel a Beijing visit that same weekend.
Both countries have also been locked in a tit-for-tat trade war since 2018, when then President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on Chinese goods. That resulted in a round of retaliatory tariffs from both sides, which President Joe Biden kept in place when he took office in 2021.
In October 2022, the Biden administration announced new export curbs to cut off China’s access to high-tech US semiconductors, in yet another move to stymie Beijing’s efforts to develop the country’s chip industry and military technology.
The rules restrict the export to China of some types of chips used in artificial intelligence and supercomputing, including chips made outside the US with American tools or technology. They also restrict the sale of US semiconductor manufacturing equipment to any Chinese firm.
Yet bilateral trade has grown consistently for the past two years.
In 2022, China remained the top source of US goods imports, which reached US$537 billion (S$723 billion). That same year, US goods exports to China exceeded US$153 billion.
But this might not last: in a report released last Wednesday, the American Chamber of Commerce in China said the country is no longer a top market for most members for the first time in 25 years. It noted that a majority of members said the US-China tensions have been their top business challenge for a third year in a row.
Nearly half of its members also reported increased political pressure to make or not make statements about politically sensitive issues.