China has acknowledged that ties with the US are at their lowest point since the normalisation of relations in 1979, in comments that analysts said suggest Beijing wants to ease recent tensions.
“What is alarming is that the China-US relationship is one of the most important in the world and it is facing its most serious challenge since diplomatic relations were established,” Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, said in a speech on Thursday.
“China has never had the intention of challenging or replacing the US and has no intention of entering into total confrontation with the US,” he said, adding that Beijing’s policy had not changed despite deteriorating relations in recent months.
“Every issue is on the table for discussion . . . so long as the US does not set limits,” Mr Wang said.
A phase one trade deal between the world’s two biggest economies, which promised to pause a tit-for-tat tariff spat, has been largely forgotten in recent months. Washington has sparred with Beijing over its imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong, militarisation of the South China Sea and the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This week Beijing pledged to ban US officials who engaged in “vile acts” regarding Tibet, after Washington restricted visas for Chinese officials over policy in the region.
Mr Wang’s remarks were an unusually frank admission from a senior official on how far the situation has deteriorated and suggest that Beijing is eager to halt any further escalation of disagreement, analysts said. The speech comes against a backdrop of growing alarm among China’s foreign affairs establishment about relations with Washington.
Jia Qingguo, dean of international relations at Peking University, said China was attempting to taijie — a Chinese term that translates literally as “to provide steps” and which means to give an out of an awkward situation — in order to allow the Trump administration to retreat from what Beijing sees as an “unreasonable” position.
“There is an acceleration of efforts to demonise China and China does not want to take that,” Prof Jia said.
A survey of 100 top scholars published this week by Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute found that 62 per cent of respondents believed the “US has indeed started a ‘new Cold War’ against China”, while 90 per cent said that China could handle the US in this new confrontation.
Liu Weidong, a scholar at the state-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said in the report that only a firm approach by China would work with the US under Trump, which “will take a mile if you give them an inch”.
“In the past, the US was willing to respond to compromises from China. But Trump has broken with convention,” Mr Liu said.
China has signalled its willingness to hold to the phase one trade deal. But other issues, such as rising tensions over Taiwan, could “torpedo” the process, said Prof Jia.
“To challenge China on the Taiwan issue is playing with fire,” he added.