Updated Jan 25, 2021 - World

Xi Jinping warns against "new cold war" in Davos speech

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Wang Zhao - Pool/Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping warned that a "new cold war" could turn hot, and must be avoided, in a speech on Monday at World Economic Forum’s virtual “Davos Agenda” conference.

Why it matters: Xi didn't refer directly to U.S.-China tensions, but the subtext was clear. These were his first remarks to an international audience since the inauguration of President Biden, whose administration has already concurred with Donald Trump's determination that China is committing "genocide" against Uyghur Muslims, and issued a warning about China's aggression toward Taiwan.

What he's saying:

“We should respect and accommodate differences, avoid meddling in other countries’ internal affairs and resolve disagreements through consultation and dialogue. History and reality have made it clear time and again that the misguided approach of antagonism and confrontation — be it in the form of a cold war, hot war, trade war or tech war — will eventually hurt all countries’ interest and undermine everyone’s well-being.”
— Xi Jinping

Xi also laid out a four-step approach to ensuring the world emerges stronger from the COVID-19 crisis.

  • It includes "macroeconomic policy coordination," the avoidance of "arrogance, prejudice and hatred" in favor of "peaceful coexistence," the reduction of global inequality, and the strengthening of global institutions on issues like public health and climate change.
  • Throughout the speech, Xi repeatedly returned to the importance of international cooperation on nearly every issue — except on those, like human rights, that he deems "internal affairs."

Between the lines: Xi’s speech extolling the virtues of multilateralism would have come across differently just a few months earlier, before Biden’s victory.

  • Unlike Trump, Biden also speaks frequently about the need for international cooperation, including on issues cited by Xi like the pandemic and global development.
  • But Biden also emphasizes the need for Western democracies to work together to confront China — posing a new challenge for Beijing.
  • In his speech, Xi stressed that multilateralism must include everyone, not devolve into “small circles.” In Biden's view, it's based on alliances.

What to watch: Xi specifically opposed the ideas of imposing sanctions or seeking to "create isolation." He also warned that the pandemic should not be allowed to accelerate "decoupling" or the re-routing of supply chains. Those tools are all being heavily debated in Washington when it comes to China.

One key quote: “We should advocate fair competition by competing with each other on a racing field, not beating each other on a wrestling arena.”

Go deeper: Trump's U.S.-China transformation.

Go deeper