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As communist China turns 70, a 'Great Fracture' emerges with US

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United Nations (United States) (AFP)

Seventy years after the founding of communist China, once rosy predictions of coexistence with the United States have dissipated with expectations rising instead of a long-term, globe-spanning rivalry.

The United Nations General Assembly showcased the harsh new tone between the world's two largest economies, with US President Donald Trump declaring from the rostrum that the age of tolerance for China's "abuses" was over.

Representing China at the annual summit of leaders, Foreign Minister Wang Yi vowed that his country -- "with a 5,000-year civilization" -- would never be cowed by threats.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres voiced worries in his own address as he pleaded for international cooperation.

"I fear the possibility of a Great Fracture: the world splitting in two, with the two largest economies on earth creating two separate and competing worlds," Guterres said.

Each would have its "own dominant currency, trade and financial rules, their own internet and artificial intelligence capacities, and their own zero-sum geopolitical and military strategies," he said.

China on Tuesday marks 70 years since Mao Zedong declared the People's Republic which is now led by one of its most powerful presidents since, Xi Jinping.

He has clamped down hard on any whiffs of dissent and increasingly exerts China's role abroad, including through assertive moves in dispute-filled Asian waters and his global "Belt and Road" infrastructure-building binge.

After normalizing relations with China in the 1970s, successive US leaders chose partnership, even after troops killed hundreds if not thousands of protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

President Bill Clinton delinked human rights from trading privileges, with US policymakers hoping that engagement and economic growth would transform China.

"Two decades later, this theory has been tested and proven completely wrong," Trump said in his UN address.

Wang, at a New York dinner on the sidelines of the UN summit, warned against the United States giving up decades of engagement and seeking instead to contain China.

"Such an idea of molding others according to one's wish is wrong, and will never work," he said.

"Seventy years have passed, and the US should not start another wrong fight with the wrong country."

- Multiple fronts -

Trump has gone on the offensive with an all-out trade war with China, slapping tariffs on billions of dollars in goods to demand an end to what he calls unfair trading practices and rampant theft of US intellectual property.

But the United States has challenged China on multiple fronts. Trump in his address warned China against trampling on freedoms in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, an issue on which he had earlier been circumspect.

US officials also used the UN summit to rally pressure on China to end its mass incarceration of some one million Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking Muslims and have separately pushed countries to shun Huawei, the Chinese tech giant.

Unlike even a decade ago, China enjoys few allies in Washington, with business leaders who once pressed for strong relations increasingly wary of China's treatment of investors.

But some question if there is a thought-out strategy behind the swagger.

"Just being more confrontational with China does not make us more competitive with China," Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at a recent hearing.

He urged Trump, fond of authoritarian leaders, to show more consistency globally on human rights.

Critics also point to Trump's withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a vast bloc in which the United States would have helped set the trading rules in Asia with China excluded.

Trump argued that the deal, championed by his predecessor Barack Obama, would have hurt US businesses and workers, a stance in tune with major labor unions.

- Finding strategy -

Before being pushed out of her job in August, Kiron Skinner, director of policy planning at the State Department, said the Trump administration was drafting a strategy on China along the lines of how the United States chose containment as its doctrine for the Soviet Union.

In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, Odd Arne Westad, a Yale scholar of the Cold War and China, said the Asian power is substantially different from the Soviet Union.

The Chinese have little interest in exporting ideology and instead are motivated by nationalism and a pursuit of economic advantage, he wrote.

"The more the United States and China beat each other up, the more room for maneuver other powers will have," he wrote.

"The result may be a world of regional hegemons, and sooner rather than later."

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