China is having a good crisis. The spread of Covid-19 in China – if one believes the statistics and declarations of the Chinese government – is under control, while many Western countries (and the U.S. in particular) are confronted with a rising number of infections and the prospects of new and prolonged partial or total lockdowns.
Beijing, in the meantime, has gone on the offence trying to distract from the fact that the virus originated in China and that it withheld information on the spread for months. Every once in a while, over recent months, Beijing “ordered” its state-controlled press to spread “bogus information” that the virus might have been created in a U.S. military lab and was exported to China and the rest of Asia. In fact, state-sponsored disinformation campaigns (including Covid-19) spread on social media outlets became so widespread that even the European Union (EU) urged Beijing to reign in its disinformation channels and campaigns. To no avail, of course, as every opinion on anything Chinese is (unwanted) interference as far as Beijing is concerned. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespersons joined the offensive aggressively defending the government’s every move on the message platform that the rest of the ordinary Chinese people are not even allowed to use (Twitter).
Beijing is exploiting the virus for its own purpose to create and change the facts on the Asian ground. Disputed territories, borders, waters and islands in Asia, Beijing decided, are not disputed as they are either controlled or belong to China, period. Hong Kong too, as we found out, is part of Beijing’s territorial expansionist ambitions. The National Security Law Beijing ordered its National People’s Congress (the country’s rubber-stamp parliament which convenes for one week once a year to unanimously approve laws already “pre-approved” by the Politburo Standing Committee) to adopt is not even about national security. It is about interfering and controlling Hong Kong’s judicial system and Beijing unilaterally deciding to anticipate the deadline by 27 years. Under a bilateral treaty, Beijing signed with the United Kingdom in 1984, Hong Kong was guaranteed a “high degree of political autonomy” until 2047. In violation of that international treaty, the National Security Law, among others, authorizes Beijing to deploy agents from its newly-created “Office for Safeguarding National Security” to monitor and control local Hong Kong authorities. Unsurprisingly, Beijing has decided that those agents are not subject to Hong Kong’s laws. To be sure, Beijing never needed a law to interfere in Hong Kong politics and judicial affairs. In the recent past, Chinese secret service agents abducted a number of Hong Kong citizens (e.g., booksellers who sold volumes critical of Xi Jinping) to mainland China, where they disappeared and later put onto Chinese prime-time television to admit to charges of alleged conspiracy and/or espionage.
Japan too is again a target of Chinese foreign policy assertiveness. Chinese coastguard ships have resumed sailing into Japanese-controlled territorial waters around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. That happened in late June after a Japanese island municipality with administrative authority over the disputed islands announced to rename an area covering the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. These are also claimed by China, which maintains that Japan unlawfully annexed them after its victory in the Sino-Japanese war in 1984-95 and failed to return them to China after World War II. China is picking one fight after the other, applying “wolf-warrior diplomacy” as ordered by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019. When Xi took over power in 2013, he ordered Chinese policymakers and diplomats never to forget China’s “National Humiliation,” when speaking and acting on behalf of the country. According to the Chinese narrative, that century started in 1839 and the first “Opium War” and ended in 1949 when Mao Zedong liberated the Chinese people from western “barbarians” and its Chinese collaborator Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jiechi in Mandarin). In 2019, Xi changed gear und urged the same diplomats and policymakers to be “good fighters.” The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers who recently killed 20 Indian soldiers along the disputed Sino-Indian in the Himalayas haven taken that all too literally.
Applying what many independent observers complain are blackmail politics, in the recent past, Beijing has furthermore imposed economic pressure and sanctions on Mongolia, the Philippines and Australia for hosting the Dalai Lama, challenging Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea and criticizing state-run internment camps in Xinjiang. Kidnapping too has become a part of Beijing’s foreign policy playbook. When Canadian authorities arrested Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou in Canada in December 2018, Beijing reacted by arresting two Canadian citizens in China on trumped-up charges of espionage. All of this, James Kynge writes in the Financial Times on July 11, is risking an international backlash for China. China, however, does not seem to be concerned about that and sending a message of political and military strength is what seems to matter most. U.S. President Donald Trump, in the meantime, is right where China wants him to be: in decline, losing influence, impact and political credibility on a daily basis. Much of what Chinese scholars with close links to the government are recommending is to achieve the expansion of China’s regional and global power, influence and indeed global hegemony is based on U.S. political, military decline. Things might change in November and return to more “normal,” but even if Trump is not re-elected, he still has more than six months to continue making a mess out of U.S. foreign and security policy and, in particular, those towards Asia. For now, Beijing is still only a regional “bully” with global ambitions. However, China’s learning curve is steep and the West ability to deter Chinese assertiveness is waning.
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI.