Two sessions 2020: why Chinese Premier Li Keqiang had little to say about the United States

25-May-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

China’s wrangling with the United States over the Covid-19 pandemic may have grabbed international headlines and stoked fears of an imminent new Cold War, but it did not make it into Premier Li Keqiang’s opening speech to the annual national legislative gathering.

As a US-led global backlash against China over its initial handling of the coronavirus crisis continued to brew, Li was more focused on a long list of grim social and economic challenges at home.

He admitted that “China will face challenges like never before” over a long time, but nonetheless put on a brave face, declaring that the country would “make it through” with its authoritarian one-party rule, economic strength and great market potential.

The report was largely in line with the convention of not referring to countries by name, but the lack of references might also indicate the leadership’s struggle to put a positive spin on relations with the United States.

The already strained relations between the two countries have been in a precipitous fall in recent months, with Beijing and Washington edging closer to an all-out confrontation as the pandemic continues to ravage the US and Europe nearly six months after it was first discovered in China.

“Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, have often talked about changes the world has not seen for a century. Now, the narrative has become reality,” said Pang Zhongying, a Beijing-based international affairs analyst. “With US-China relations going nearly into a free fall, Beijing is probably facing the worst international situation in over three decades.”

Although China and the US have had some limited medical cooperation during the Covid-19 crisis, it has done little to put ties back on track.

Trump has upped the ante in his blame-shifting game with China ahead of November’s presidential elections and tensions have been heightened over Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.

“It is obvious that Beijing is beginning to prepare for the worst-case scenarios, including limited armed confrontations,” Pang said.

As a result, Li had few words on Washington, mentioning the US only once when he pledged to carry out the phase one trade deal both sides reached late last year.

“We achieved fruitful outcomes in pursuing China’s major country diplomacy,” Li said on Friday in his address to the National People’s Congress, adding a list of international meetings Xi attended over the previous year.

He also mentioned the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and free-trade negotiations with Japan and South Korea, which had been stalled due to the Covid-19.

“China stands ready to work with other countries to strengthen international cooperation on Covid-19 control, promote stability in the world economy, advance global governance, and uphold the international system with the United Nations at its core and an international order based on international law,” he said.

But analysts said Li’s latest commitment was not really convincing considering that most multilateral mechanisms, such as the World Health Organization, have been weakened during the pandemic. The UN Security Council has largely been paralysed due to the rivalry between Beijing and Washington and failed to act during the global health crisis.

China’s relations with the European Union, Russia and Africa have also been hit hard by the pandemic, and Beijing has become increasingly isolated, making it harder for China to reinvigorate the UN system, according to Gu Su, a political scientist at Nanjing University.

A scan of the seven previous NPC speeches Li has delivered since he became the country’s second-in-command in 2013 show that the premier had usually described China’s relations with major countries in rather positive terms.

Observers agreed Li’s characterisation of China’s ties with major countries in his NPC reports had served as a barometer of US-China ties, deemed by generations of Chinese leaders as the most important for Beijing in its hierarchy of diplomatic relationships.

After Xi’s 2013 summit with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, at the Sunnylands estate in California, Li told the NPC in 2014 that China’s relations with other major countries “steadily grew through interaction”. He reported “fresh progress” with major countries in March 2016, four months after Obama visited Beijing.

Li’s most detailed remarks on US-China ties appeared in his 2017 speech When Xi was set to depart for his first in-person summit with Trump the next month. “China’s coordination and cooperation with other major countries were strengthened,” he said.


Category: Hong Kong

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