Defiant Xi Tells World China Is Ready to Stand Its Ground

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(Bloomberg) -- President Xi Jinping had a clear message to those who want to thwart China’s rise: You will fail.

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In a speech running almost two hours on Sunday, Xi let the world know that China wouldn’t change course even as it faces “dangerous storms” in a more hostile world. Instead, he declared the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is now on an irreversible historical course” and more forcefully offered China up as an alternative to the US and its allies.

“China’s international influence, appeal and power to shape the world has significantly increased,” Xi said in kicking off the Communist Party’s once-in-five-year party congress, at which he’s set to secure a norm-breaking third term in office. “Chinese modernization offers humanity a new choice for achieving modernization,” he added.

Xi’s remarks indicate that China is ready to stare down a growing challenge from the US under President Joe Biden, who has moved to hinder Beijing’s ability to access advanced technology and sought to deter any military action against Taiwan -- the biggest flash point between the world’s biggest economies. The Chinese leader hailed the nation’s “fighting spirit” and said the country was “well-positioned for pursuing development and ensuring security.”

“The message to the party is that China can develop its technological advantages without the United States, and is going to be able to withstand the policies that Biden and others are promoting to cut China off from certain high-tech goods like semiconductors,” said Neil Thomas, a China analyst at Eurasia Group Ltd., a political risk advisory and consulting firm. “Whether that’s going to succeed is a totally different question of course, but it’s certainly expressing confidence to those in the system.”

Xi’s speech reflected a changed world from 2017, when he declared that China was “standing tall and firm in the East.” Since then, he’s faced a barrage of US tariffs, financial sanctions and trade curbs aimed at blocking China’s ability to grow even more powerful, culminating in a sweeping order this month restricting Beijing’s access to high-end chips used in artificial intelligence, supercomputing and other technologies set to drive the modern economy.

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On Sunday, Xi vowed to “resolutely win the battle in key core technologies.” Pledging to speed up innovation in areas vital to “technology self-reliance,” he said that China “will move faster to launch a number of major national projects that are of strategic, big-picture and long-term importance.”

In many ways, Xi’s defiant tone belied the problems facing China’s economy. The country is facing one of its most challenging periods in decades as Covid Zero policies and a property crackdown place pre-pandemic predictions of a 5% growth rate out of reach. Market analysts didn’t see much in Xi’s speech that would change that short-term outlook.

In addition to failing to make significant breakthroughs on chip technology despite spending tens of billions of dollars, the nation is also facing the slowest economic growth in more than four decades, excluding 2020’s Covid slump. Restrictive pandemic policies have cut off visitors and hurt spending, while youth unemployment is around record highs. A property crisis has also spurred a wave of mortgage boycotts.

Xi reiterated that economic development was the party’s “top priority,” even as he twice mentioned the need to “balance development with security” -- a phrase suggesting growth can be sacrificed for goals like self-sufficiency and national defense. Noting “drastic changes in the international landscape,” he said the party “safeguarded China’s dignity and core interests.”

Peiqian Liu, chief China economist of Natwest Markets, said the remark suggests that “growth rates will no longer be the only and top priority in coming years -- security of development also matters.”

Hong Kong and Taiwan were two places where China’s actions have considerably hurt its international reputation during Xi’s current five-year term. Xi proclaimed Sunday that “order has been restored” in the former British colony, while calling Taiwan a “matter for the Chinese” to resolve.

“The wheels of history are rolling on toward China’s reunification and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Xi said, referring to Taiwan. “The complete reunification of our country must be realized, and it can without a doubt be realized.”

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The words are a clear rebuttal to the US, where politicians from both major parties have stepped up efforts to demonstrate support for Taiwan. Biden has repeated multiple times that the US would come to Taiwan’s aid if China attacked, a prospect that has become a greater worry particularly after Beijing’s unprecedented military exercises around the island in the wake of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August.

While Xi said China “will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort,” he added that the threat to use force was “directed solely at interference by external forces and a few separatists seeking Taiwan independence.”

The speech gave little hope for a breakthrough in US-China ties ahead of a possible meeting with Biden next month at the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. Rather than stressing a “new type of great power relations” with the US, Xi focused on initiatives to expand ties with developing nations in the Global South, according to Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China at Chatham House.

“It also marked Beijing’s realization that its fraught relationship with the West is here to stay without any prospect of improvement soon,” she said.

Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Xi’s emphasis on a “Chinese-style everything” amounted to acceptance that the US and China were strategic competitors, even if Beijing disputed Washington’s use of the term.

“He was not backing down from that at all,” Kennedy told Bloomberg Television. “Anyone looking for an opening for greater cooperation, pulling back, stepping back, trying to find common ground -- I don’t think that was the message he was trying to convey.”

(Updates with trader view in eighth paragraph)

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