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.