United States President Joe Biden wants to forge an "alliance of democracies". China wants to make clear that it has alliances of its own.
Only days after a rancorous encounter with US officials in Alaska, China's foreign minister joined his Russian counterpart last week to denounce Western meddling and sanctions.
He then headed to the Middle East to visit traditional US allies, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as Iran, where he signed a sweeping investment agreement on Sunday. China's leader, Xi Jinping, reached out to Colombia one day and pledged support for North Korea on another.
Although officials denied the timing was intentional, the message clearly was. China hopes to position itself as the main challenger to an international order, led by the United States, that is generally guided by principles of democracy, respect for human rights and adherence to rule of law.
Such a system "does not represent the will of the international community", China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, told Russia's, Sergey Lavrov, when they met in the southern Chinese city of Guilin.
In a joint statement, they accused the United States of bullying and interference and urged it to "reflect on the damage it has done to global peace and development in recent years".
The threat of a US-led coalition challenging China's authoritarian policies has only bolstered Beijing's ambition to be a global leader of nations that oppose Washington and its allies. It shows an increasingly confident and unapologetic China, one that not only refutes US criticism of its internal affairs but that presents its own values as a model for others.
"They're actually trying to build an argument like, 'We're the more responsible power. We're not the spoilers or an axis of evil'," John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, said of China's strategy.
As result, the world is increasingly dividing into distinct if not purely ideological camps, with both China and the United States hoping to lure supporters.
Biden made that clear in his first presidential news conference last Friday, presenting a foreign policy based on geopolitical competition between models of governance. He compared Xi to Russian President Vladimir Putin, "who thinks that autocracy is the wave of the future and democracy can't function" in "an ever-complex world".
He later called the challenge "a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies".
China, for its part, argues that it is the United States dividing the world into blocs. Xi set the tone shortly after Biden's inauguration, telling this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that multilateralism should be based on consensus among many countries, not a view advanced by "one or the few".
"To build small circles or start a new Cold War, to reject, threaten or intimidate others, to willfully impose decoupling, supply disruption or sanctions, and to create isolation or estrangement will only push the world into division and even confrontation," Xi said.
In pushing back on criticism of its policies in recent days, China has championed the primacy of international organisations like the United Nations, where Beijing's clout has grown.
Wang noted that more than 80 countries at the UN Human Rights Council had expressed support for China's actions in Xinjiang, the far western region where authorities have detained and interned Uighur Muslims in a campaign the United States declared a genocide.
As a result, the world is increasingly dividing into distinct, if not purely ideological, camps, with both China and the United States hoping to lure in supporters. China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that Wang secured an endorsement of its Xinjiang policies, as well as its quashing of dissent in Hong Kong, from Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, though a Saudi statement did not mention Xinjiang.
China's most striking alignment is with Russia, where Putin has long complained about US hegemony and its use — abuse, in his view — of the global financial system as an instrument of foreign policy.
The Russian foreign minister arrived in China on March 22 railing about US sanctions and saying the world needed to reduce its reliance on the US dollar.
China and Russia have drawn closer especially since Putin's annexation of Crimea in 2014 was met with international outrage and Western penalties. While the possibility of a formal alliance remains remote, the countries' diplomatic and economic ties have deepened in common cause against the United States. So have strategic ties. The People's Liberation Army and the Russian military now routinely hold exercises together and have twice conducted joint air patrols along Japan's coast, most recently in December.
The two countries announced this month that they would build a research station on the moon together, setting the stage for competing space programmes, one led by China and the other by the United States.
"The latest steps and gestures by the Biden administration, seen as hostile and insulting by the Russian and Chinese leaders, have predictably pushed Moscow and Beijing even deeper into a mutual embrace," said Artyom Lukin, a professor of international studies at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, Russia.
Chinese officials, like the Russians, have repeatedly said the United States lacks the standing to criticise other nations. They cite as evidence its military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and accuse it of instigating public protests against governments it opposes.
In his extraordinary confrontation with US officials in Alaska, China's top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, cited racism and police brutality in the United States, along with mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, as evidence of the country's decline.
China's State Council released a report on human rights in the United States last Thursday, using as an epigraph George Floyd's plea to the police, "I can't breathe".
"The United States should lower the tone of democracy and human rights and talk more about cooperation in global affairs," Yuan Peng, president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a government think tank, wrote the same day.
From that perspective, Xi's outreach to North Korea and Wang's visit to Iran could signal China's interest in working with the United States to resolve disputes over those two countries' nuclear programmes.
Biden's administration may be open to that. After the Alaska meetings, Secretary of State Antony Blinken mentioned both as potential areas where "our interests intersect" with China's.
In other areas, a chasm is widening.
Since Biden's election, China has sought to prevent the United States from forging a united front against it. It appealed to the new administration to resume co-operation after the confrontations of the Trump years. It sealed trade and investment agreements, including one with the European Union, hoping to box out Biden.
It did not work. The first results of Biden's strategy emerged last week, when the United States, Canada, Britain and the European Union jointly announced sanctions on Chinese officials over Xinjiang. China's condemnation was swift.
"The era when it was possible to make up a story and concoct lies to wantonly meddle in Chinese domestic affairs is past and will not come back," Wang said.
China retaliated with sanctions of its own against elected officials and scholars in the European Union and Britain. Similar penalties followed on Sunday on Canadians and Americans, including top officials at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government body that held a hearing this month on forced labor in Xinjiang. All affected will be barred from traveling to China or conducting business with Chinese companies or individuals.
Theresa Fallon, director of the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels, said China's sanctions on Europeans were an overreaction that would drive officials into an anti-China camp.
They could also jeopardise China's investment deal with the European Union, as many of those penalised are members of the European Parliament, whose approval is required. So could new campaigns by Chinese consumers against major Western brands like H&M and Nike.
Until now, many EU nations have not wanted to explicitly choose sides, eschewing the kind of bipolar ideological divisions seen during the Cold War, in part because of deepening economic ties with China.
With each new twist in relations, however, clearer camps are emerging.
"The Chinese mirror all the time," Fallon said. "They always accuse people of Cold War thinking because I think that's really, deep down, how they think."
Written by: Steven Lee Myers
Photographs by: Erin Schaff, Tom Brenner, Doug Mills, AP
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES