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The rhetoric between China and the U.S. is heating up again


You can hear the tensions between China and the United States this week by listening to their words. China's President Xi Jinping blamed China's economic trouble on what he called comprehensive containment and suppression by Western countries, led by the U.S. China's new foreign minister, Qin Gang, warned the U.S. was on a path toward, quote, "conflict and confrontation." Yesterday, the U.S. State Department said the U.S. doesn't want to hold China back but does want to uphold a rules-based order. So how bad is it? Jude Blanchette has some thoughts. He holds the Freeman Chair in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank here in Washington.

Welcome to the program, sir.

JUDE BLANCHETTE: Thanks, Steve. Good to be here.

INSKEEP: The U.S. and China have spoken a little bit harshly about each other in the past. What's new about these words?

BLANCHETTE: You remember, you know, Mao Zedong called the United States a paper tiger, so these sorts of barbs are not necessarily new. But just specifically, Xi Jinping himself has avoided very direct criticisms of the United States that name the United States. He'll usually refer to some countries or the West or hostile external forces. So the fact that he's now specifically naming and shaming the United States, I think, indicates the Chinese are looking to demonstrate their displeasure with U.S. policy.

INSKEEP: Does it also suggest the Chinese are feeling some pain from actual U.S. policies like trade tariffs, limits on high-tech chips, moves against Chinese tech companies and so forth?

BLANCHETTE: Oh, without a doubt. I think specifically the export controls from last October on China's ability to purchase, you know, advanced, high-end semiconductors has had a real significant bite here on China. So certainly, they are feeling some of the sort of encirclement and containment that Foreign Minister Qin complained about the other day.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned that word, containment. It's a word leftover from the Cold War. That was the explicit U.S. policy toward the old Soviet Union - to contain communism. I believe the United States has dismissed that word to describe its current policy against China. But let's just look in practical terms. When you look at all the different things the United States is doing with or about or toward China, is the U.S. trying to contain China in some way?

BLANCHETTE: I think this is one where a little self-reflection on both sides is needed. The United States, as you indicated, officially says nothing has changed in our policy; this is just a competition. But I think the Chinese are not incorrect in seeing a significantly more aggressive U.S. policy vis-a-vis China. And just referencing National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan's speech from last year where he said the U.S. position on technology is to permanently remain a generation ahead of China in advanced technology. I think we have to be honest with ourselves that if not a specific repeat of the George Kennan version of containment, something similar to that is what we're, in a sense, bringing into effect.

INSKEEP: Is the United States settling into a situation very much like the Cold War in that it's hard to see how this ends; it's hard to see when the Chinese government would in some way fall, and you really don't want a war, but you may need to be prepared for decades and decades to have friction?

BLANCHETTE: I think the challenge with the Cold War analogy is even if it is descriptive of some elements of the bilateral relationship, it's not particularly proscriptive or helpfully proscriptive given just how different China is from the Soviet Union. As - you know, as you indicated, China's not going anywhere anytime soon. Nor is the Communist Party. China's the second-largest economy in the world. It's the largest trading nation. It has significant military capabilities. We have to articulate an end state here that is some version of coexistence because the alternative, frankly, is unthinkable. And this is where I worry. On our side here in the United States, we're moving forward aggressively, but we're trying to avoid that hard conversation of, how does this end?

INSKEEP: If you are the president of China, to look at it from Xi Jinping's point of view, and you're beginning a third term, consolidating power even more than you had before, is it in some way useful to have an external enemy like the United States?

BLANCHETTE: Useful, but if I'm Xi Jinping, I'm hoping the United States takes its foot off the gas a bit. So I agree that authoritarian leaders, you know, often prefer to have a manifestation that they can say, look, this is the source of all of our problems. But, you know, really, the United States, especially when it's working in alignment with partners and allies like Japan, is bringing a significant amount of pain on China.

INSKEEP: Jude Blanchette of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Thanks very much for the clarity. Really appreciate it.

BLANCHETTE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.