China and the United States can coexist as major global powers but they must learn to respect each other and not go down the wrong path of confrontation and rivalry, the spokesman for the Chinese legislature said on Thursday.
Speaking at a late-night press conference ahead of the National People’s Congress opening session, Zhang Yesui said the two countries could work together in areas such as climate change and fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
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“China and the United States may have disagreements, it is normal. But cutting off supplies and decoupling has hurt the two countries without bringing benefits. Confrontation has hurt each other’s interests,” Zhang said. “There are many areas of mutual interest such as climate change and the Covid-19 response, promoting global economic recovery and maintaining regional peace and stability.”
He said China’s US policies were consistent and it had always adhered to the principle of no confrontation, though he reiterated that Beijing would defend its interests and sovereignty.
Biden in February said he had made clear to Xi in the call that there would be “repercussions” for China’s human rights abuses. Beijing has long rejected accusations of human rights violations, and Xi reportedly told Biden that issues relating to Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan were “China’s internal affairs and concern China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
On Thursday, Zhang also said China was transparent about its defence budget.
“Maintaining an appropriate and steady increase of defence spending is needed to safeguard our sovereignty, security, and development interests, fulfil China’s international responsibilities and obligations, and promote the transformation of national defence with Chinese features,” he said.
Zhang did not give any specifics of China’s defence spending – as other NPC spokesmen have done in previous years – but said a country’s defence policy, rather than its defence budget, should be used to determine whether it posed a threat to others or not.
“Our defence policy is defensive in nature, the efforts to strengthen our national defence do not target or threaten any country,” he said.
In 2019, China’s defence budget reached 1.2 trillion yuan (US$185 billion), the second highest military spending in the world after the US. But the figure did not account for all of China’s defence spending, according to a January report by military affairs think tank the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. It put China’s real defence budget at 1.66 trillion yuan if spending in areas like its coastguard and paramilitary police was included.
Zhang’s call for peaceful coexistence came after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday said China was “the biggest geopolitical challenge that the United States faced in the 21st century”.
A national security agenda released by Washington the same day said the US would restore its global leadership by embracing multilateral platforms and fostering relations with allies to counter Beijing.
Zhang also said China had no geopolitical agenda when it provided Covid-19 vaccines to developing countries. He said China had provided vaccines to more than 60 countries, most of them developing nations, and it was in discussion with another 40 countries to supply vaccines.
China is one of the world’s largest producers of Covid-19 vaccines and Xi promised to make Chinese vaccines a “global public good” in May last year.
“In the face of the pandemic, nothing matters more than people’s lives,” Zhang said. “China initiated international cooperation to fight the pandemic not for geopolitical purposes, and it did not come with any political strings attached,” the spokesman said. “We hope more countries can provide vaccines to developing countries.”
China has also provided 10 million vaccine doses to the Covax Facility, a vaccine distribution system led by the World Health Organization.
China has stepped up its calls to work with the US in vaccine research and development as it seeks common ground to ease tensions between the two powers. George Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Centre for Disease and Control and Prevention, said at a webinar earlier this week the two countries should cooperate to fight the pandemic.
However, the Biden administration has reportedly been in talks with allies in the Quad security grouping – Japan, India and Australia – to distribute Covid-19 vaccines to Asian countries in an effort to counter China’s influence.
China has sent vaccines to countries including Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Pakistan, Cambodia and Laos in recent weeks. Analysts say it has been engaging in vaccine diplomacy, a label China has resisted.
Additional reporting by Eduardo Baptista
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