Beijing’s season of all-round assertion

Inscrutable China

Srikanth Kondapalli has been Peking behind the Bamboo Curtain for 30 years @SrikanthKondap8

While Indian commentators were focusing on the growing Chinese military build-up in the Western Sector of the borders at Galwan and Pangong Tso and even a dozen rounds of local-level military commanders’ meetings and the intervention of civilian officials wasn’t helping, a call is said to have been quietly put through from Delhi to a key member of the Chinese Communist Party’s all-powerful Politburo.

But China wasn’t seeking to assert itself only in the Ladakh heights. It was doing so on multiple issues, at multiple levels and all over the world.

First, with growing international criticism over its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic while it was still limited to Wuhan, Beijing appears to have concluded that offence is better than defence. In its June 7 white paper on COVID-19, China has absolved itself of any wrongdoing in spreading the contagion to the world.

The white paper asserted that in its “fight and win” over COVID-19, China fought a “resolute battle to prevent and control its spread” by employing “extensive, stringent, and thorough containment measures.” China’s responded in an “open, transparent and responsible manner and in accordance with the law” and “a decisive victory was secured in the battle to defend Hubei Province and its capital city of Wuhan”. It did not explain its inactions during November to January 23, which led to the spread of over five million people leaving from Wuhan to different destinations, infecting the globe and creating worldwide misery, death and destruction.

Australia, India and other countries which at the World Health Assembly on May 19 sought an “impartial, independent and comprehensive” investigation into the origins of Covid-19 became objects of Beijing’s ire. China took to economic warfare against Canberra, banning beef and other imports, and issuing an advisory to its citizens not to visit Australia. India faced military heat in Ladakh and Sikkim.

Secondly, with the US withdrawing from global and regional multilateral arrangements – such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, Climate Change proposals, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and now the World Health Organization -- China saw an opportunity to expand its footprint abroad.

Not only did China resist the US in many multilateral institutions and made them ineffective, such as in the United Nations Security Council meeting on April 10 to discuss Covid-19, in the IMF and World Bank, and in the WTO and WHO, China’s UN Representative Zhang Jun also organised a Forum of Small States meeting last week to retain its support base in multilateral fora.

Specifically, not only did China praise the WHO leadership’s responses on COVID-19 but also increased its contribution by $20 million, in addition to President Xi Jinping announcing $2 billion for the developing countries to cope up with Covid-19.

Thirdly, while every nation was busy fighting COVID-19, China stepped up its military forays against Japan on Senkaku islands, against Vietnam, Malaysia and Philippines on the disputed islands in South China Sea, and against Taiwan and India recently. Japan alleged that China’s coastguard vessels and air force planes have transgressed on the small Senkaku islands 621 times in 2019, and has kept up the tempo in 2020 as well (compared to over 400 transgressions on the long India-China border).

China’s Haiyang Dizhi 8 ‘survey vessels’ forayed into Vietnam and Malaysian waters in April, sank Vietnamese vessels, declared a unilateral fishing ban till August, decided on April 18 to establish two Sansha cities on Woody Island for further administrative control over the South China Sea, and began preparations to impose an Air Defence Identification Zone to restrict global flights. These attracted unusual criticism from India, whose foreign ministry spokesman on May 21 stated: “We firmly stand with the freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce in these international waterways, in accordance with international law.”

With India and Australia holding their virtual summit on June 4 and announcing a maritime logistics arrangement, it appears they have bridged the weakest link in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, although unlike in 2017 when Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop defended the Indian position in the Doklam incident, no such comments were made now on the ongoing Ladakh stand-off.

Fourthly, China-Taiwan relations went into a tail-spin. President Tsia Ing-wen’s second inaugural coincided with China’s parliamentary meeting. Most significantly, China has been operationalising its second aircraft carrier, Shandong, in the region, while its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, surrounded Taiwan twice. China’s third-ranking leader Li Zhanshu indicated the use of force, even as Joint Staff chief Gen. Li Zuocheng warned of “smashing separatist forces” on Taiwan.

Fifthly, China’s parliament debated and approved a new security law imposing restrictions on Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” model, thus riling Hong Kong residents but also the UK, which brokered that compromise solution in 1984 and agreed to hand over Hong Kong to China in 1997.

All of these Chinese assertive and aggressive responses have been put down to a new “wolf warrior” diplomacy and to a bid to cover-up the Covid-19 disaster. Mao Zedong once suggested, in his classic guerrilla warfare techniques which were then applied to foreign policy, that it is not prudent to “attack in all directions.” However, China’s current leaders appear to be in a hurry to occupy the global “centre stage”.