Sometimes, the best time to act isn’t when you’re at your strongest, but when your rivals are weakest.
As much of the world continues to reel from the coronavirus pandemic, China is flexing its muscles in Hong Kong, the South China Sea and along its border with India, all the while ramping up aggressive rhetoric towards Taiwan and the United States.
Beijing may have seen its global standing take a hit due to the coronavirus – and a widespread perception that China mismanaged the initial handling of it – but as the country increasingly gets back to normal, it’s also finding itself in a rarefied position of strength compared to the continued disruption seen in much of the world.
This is providing an opportunity to pursue a long sought after goal – national rejuvenation, seizing what is seen as China’s rightful position as a global superpower.
In 2017, the Chinese Communist Party journal Qiushi, one of the most influential publications in the country, laid out “A Theoretical Guideline and Action Plan for the Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.”
Since becoming leader, national rejuvenation has been a key priority for President Xi Jinping. Once, the Communist Party’s compact with the Chinese people was that it would make them rich, under Xi the deal has been that it will make them great.
No one expects this to be easy, or to go unopposed. “As China enters a crucial stage of its transformation from a major country to a powerful one,” Qiushi noted, “it is encountering growing pressure and obstruction on the path ahead.”
“The world is currently witnessing unprecedented changes as major shifts occur in the international strategic landscape, the global governance system, the global geopolitical landscape, and the competition among countries over national strength,” the journal said.
These shifts have all been supercharged by the pandemic. The US is struggling to cope with its own domestic response to the virus, and its military is no exception, with at least one aircraft carrier left temporarily out of action due to infections on board.
While the Pentagon argues that its capabilities are the same as ever, these apparent difficulties haven’t gone unnoticed, with media close to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crowing that its own ships have not experienced the same kind of outbreaks.
The US Navy has long been the biggest block on China’s attempts to dominate the South China Sea – almost all of which is claimed by Beijing as part of its territory, despite numerous other claimants whose borders are far closer to the disputed waters.
In April, China’s Coast Guard rammed and sank a fishing boat off the coast of Vietnam, while this month Chinese vessels reportedly stepped up a long-running dispute with Malaysian oil exploration vessels in the disputed waters.
Nor are naval borders the only ones being pursued with renewed vigor. In recent weeks, Chinese and Indian soldiers have engaged in scuffles along the countries’ border in the Himalayas, and both have reportedly increased their troop presence in the region.
This is by no means the first time Beijing has flexed its muscles in the South China Sea, or engaged in border disputes with India. But with political leaders in Washington and New Delhi comparatively distracted with domestic matters related to the pandemic, Beijing has an opportunity to shore up gains in both regions that will be hard to reverse once the pandemic is over.
Speaking at an event this month, Alice Wells, a top US State Department official, drew a parallel between Beijing’s actions in both areas.
“There’s a method here to Chinese operations and it is that constant aggression, the constant attempt to shift the norms, to shift what is the status quo,” she said. “That has to be resisted whether it’s in the South China Sea … or whether it’s in India’s own backyard.”
National security concerns
Nowhere has the status quo been shifted more radically in recent days than in Hong Kong.
Last week, Beijing announced plans to introduce a draconian new national security law for the semi-autonomous Chinese city that could threaten many of its civil liberties and political freedoms.
The move comes in the wake of months of anti-government unrest last year and as protests were beginning to resume following a break forced by the coronavirus crisis. Beijing claimed the law was necessary to shore up its national security in the city, and blamed “foreign forces” for promoting separatism and violence in Hong Kong.
“The situation in Hong Kong, from Beijing’s viewpoint, was steadily getting worse, despite the pause in protests occasioned by Covid-19,” wrote China expert Jerome Cohen this week. “If allowed to fester without any attempt to suppress it, prospects for the autumn promised to see Hong Kong move further out of PRC control.”
China’s plans have been met with widespread outrage in Hong Kong and elsewhere, particularly as the new law will be imposed without consulting the city’s legislature, though Beijing-backed local government leaders have thrown their support behind the plan.
Washington has threatened to revoke Hong Kong’s special trading relationship and potentially even impose sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials, and more than 200 lawmakers from two-dozen countries have signed an open letter condemning the move.
Given the law is at least in part predicated on the idea that foreign forces have had free reign to meddle in Hong Kong – including fomenting a supposed “color revolution” according to state media – this attempt at international influence will likely prove unsuccessful.
“The US is rallying Western officials and instigating Western media outlets to attack China’s National People’s Congress for its formulation of a national security law for Hong Kong,” the Chinese government-backed tabloid Global Times said this week. “They have gained a seemingly ferocious momentum. But this momentum is far less powerful than it seems.”
It dismissed threats of sanctions or economic pressure as a bluff, adding that “as the US is entangled in the Covid-19 epidemic, its actual ability to intervene externally is weakening.”
Washington’s ability, indeed that of the entire international community, to intervene in Hong Kong is extremely limited. The city’s fate was essentially sealed in 1984, when the British agreed to hand over control to China on the promise that it would preserve Hong Kong’s freedoms – but without any way of truly holding Beijing to its word.
Hong Kong was one of the territories lost by China during the so-called “century of humiliation,” the reversal of which is the key goal of the national rejuvenation plan. Only one territory remains outside Beijing’s control: Taiwan.
The Communist Party has never controlled Taiwan, which was seized by the defeated Nationalist government following the end of the Chinese civil war, and has since developed into a thriving democracy of 22-million just off China’s coast.
More than perhaps anywhere else, Taiwan has come out of the pandemic strengthened, its international position boosted by Taipei’s undeniable success in fighting the virus, and the inequity of it being blocked from membership in the World Health Organization (WHO) by Beijing.
As tensions increase with Beijing, Washington has also thrown its support more vocally behind its longstanding ally, and other parts of the international community that typically have avoided the issue of Taiwan for fear of offending China have also spoken out.
On Monday, Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy legislator in Hong Kong, said that countries “contemplating the most effective way to counteract” the national security law should look to restoring diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
“Hurt Beijing most; Safeguard the strongest democracy in Asia; Consolidate the backup force for long term fight,” he said, in a message that was co-signed by Taiwanese lawmaker Freddie Lim.
China has responded aggressively to any suggestion of Taiwan playing a greater role in international affairs, accusing President Tsai Ing-wen – who was inaugurated in her second term this month – of pursuing separatism and threatening the uneasy peace that has existed between the two sides since the 1950s. For its part, Taiwan argues it is simply trying to exist as the de facto independent country that it is, free of China’s interference in its internal affairs and aggressive hampering of its diplomatic efforts around the world.
Taiwan is the only area where the status quo is potentially shifting against China, and also, worryingly, the only one where gradual steps are less likely to pay off – if Beijing even has the patience to try them.
China had built up closer economic ties with the island under Tsai’s predecessor, but its growing influence led to the concerted backlash that brought her to power. Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” principle was once seen as a potential model for Taiwan’s future unification with China, but since outbreak of protests last year all mainstream parties on the island have rejected it, and even Beijing seems to have admitted its unworkability with the national security law.
Some jingoistic voices in China have urged Beijing to take the opportunity presented by the coronavirus pandemic to invade Taiwan, and while most analysts agree this is very unlikely – there is new uncertainty over Taiwan’s future, even as it enjoys domestic success and international acclaim.
Because while such a conflict would be difficult, ugly and potential ruinous for all sides, there is no reason to suspect that Beijing would be in any better a position in five or ten years from now, and may be in a worse one.
In the same speech announcing the Hong Kong law ahead of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, a spokesman for the rubberstamp parliament spoke of the desire for unification with Taiwan. That has been a longstanding, oft-repeated goal, but one key word used in previous years was missing this time around: “peaceful.”