China is not only asserting itself geopolitically but openly questioning the U.S.’s central role on the world stage

It’s been a busy few months for China — and sobering ones for the United States.

Days later, Beijing announced it had brokered a deal that will see Persian Gulf rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran normalize relations, a shocking diplomatic coup in an area long dominated by the United States. Xi was reportedly personally involved in the negotiations.

“This landmark agreement has the potential to transform the Middle East by realigning its major powers,” the journal Foreign Affairs declared, adding that the gambit is “weaving the region into China’s global ambitions. For Beijing, the announcement was a great leap forward in its rivalry with Washington.”

But the biggest news came two weeks ago, when Xi flew to Moscow and met with Vladimir Putin, just days after the International Criminal Court in the Hague issued an arrest warrant for the Russian president on charges of war crimes in Russia’s year-old invasion of Ukraine.

‘China has seen a space where it is hard for the West to really block off — heading into issues [that the Western powers] feel are too intractable or too toxic to touch and trying to demonstrate that there might be a different way to mediate or involve yourself in these problems.’

— Kerry Brown, King’s College London

“There are changes coming that haven’t happened in 100 years,” Xi told Putin as the self-described “dear friends” concluded their talks. “When we are together, we are driving these changes.”

China’s assertiveness comes after three years of COVID restrictions that saw the country close off from the world in an attempt to tame the virus, a policy that was suddenly scrapped in December.

“It has sunk in that China needs friends. It has ended up too isolated, and that has cut across the narrative of the Xi third term, which was due to be somewhat more sunny,” Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, told MarketWatch.

Others agreed. “China certainly is exiting a period of diplomatic isolation during the height of COVID,” said Victor Shih, the Ho Miu Lam chair in China and Pacific relations at the University of California, San Diego, and an expert on Chinese elite politics.

That exit has been swift, with Beijing taking concrete steps toward a belief that previously had been mostly rhetoric — that the U.S.-led global system is not the only path.

“China has seen a space where it is hard for the West to really block off — heading into issues [that the Western powers] feel are too intractable or too toxic to touch and trying to demonstrate that there might be a different way to mediate or involve yourself in these problems,” Brown said.

Those sentiments are increasingly pervasive across China, particularly in government, academia and media.

“The U.S., which is accustomed to enjoying the spotlight, is now puzzled for it never thought that one day China would be more popular than it,” state tabloid Global Times said in a front-page story last Thursday.

Wang Yong, director of the Center for International Political Economy and the Center for American Studies at Peking University, told MarketWatch, “The rise of China as a great power is facing an increasingly complicated situation, mainly because U.S. elites judge China as the foremost strategic and systemic threat, and attack China’s development.”

Wang highlighted concerns over Washington’s policy toward self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing claims as a renegade province.

In fact, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is stopping over in the U.S. this week after visits to the island’s few remaining allies in Central America. Beijing has threatened for weeks against her being welcomed by any high-level American officials.

Those threats turned to ire on Monday, when Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he would meet with Tsai on Wednesday in California. China said this could lead to “serious confrontation” and that Beijing would “resolutely fight back” — without giving specifics.

‘Why is it assumed we live in a U.S. world?’

— Alan Ma, graduate student, Tsinghua University.

“Gradually deviating from the past promise of ‘one China,’ promoting Taiwan independence and using Taiwan to contain China’s development — these could trigger a China-U.S. war,” Peking University’s Wang said from Beijing.

See: U.S. tells China not to ‘overreact’ to Taiwan leader’s stopover

Average citizens including younger people expressed frustration with U.S. policy.

Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, arrives on Thursday at her hotel in New York.

AP/John Minchillo

“Why isn’t it China’s time to lead? Why is it assumed we live in a U.S. world?” asked 27-year-old Alan Ma, a graduate student in politics at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.

Other areas are reaching heightened levels of tension. China’s military said last month it drove out an American destroyer ship that had “illegally” entered the South China Sea. And the CEO of Chinese-owned video sensation TikTok appeared before U.S. lawmakers in hopes of preventing an American ban on the app over national-security concerns.

Context: Biden White House and bipartisan group of 12 senators back TikTok ban

Also: TikTok is the next Chinese product the U.S. could shoot down

But China’s rise, however rapid, must be put in a realistic context, experts said.

“I don’t think that we can say China has entered a new period as a global power until it has deployed large troop contingents overseas on its own,” said UC San Diego’s Shih.

Tanner Brown covers China for MarketWatch and Barron’s.

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