China has been flexing its geopolitical muscles as countries around the world grapple with the coronavirus pandemic — a reflection of Beijing’s belief that “China’s time has come,” a former U.S. diplomat said on Thursday.
In addition to pressing ahead with a new national security law for Hong Kong, China has toughened its stance on Taiwan — which it considers a wayward province that must be reunited with the mainland. Beijing has also kept up its aggression in the disputed waters of South China Sea and recently, at its border with India.
“China is being more assertive in pursuing goals that we know that it’s had in a number of decades,” Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, told CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia.”
“So clearly, this is an assertion of strength and it reflects a belief that China’s time has come, combined with the fact that this may be seen as a very good opportunity when America seems to have lost interest in global leadership and when there’s distraction from the coronavirus,” he added.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, visits a commercial street in Xi’an, capital of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, April 22, 2020.
Ju Peng | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images
Daly worked at the U.S. embassy in Beijing in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a cultural exchange officer. He also served as an interpreter for both American and Chinese leaders, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and ex-Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
Geopolitical experts have said that China’s rise as a global power is a major contributor to tensions with the U.S. — the world’s largest economy that’s regarded as a global superpower and a world leader since World War II.
But the U.S. appears to have ceded much of its global leadership since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. That has opened the door for China to pursue some of its long-standing geopolitical goals more aggressively, said Daly.
South China Sea, India
Beijing has not let the coronavirus pandemic affect some of its territorial pursuits.
It has kept up its hostility in the South China Sea, in which it has overlapping territorial claims with multiple countries including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
Beijing claims nearly the entire resource-rich waterway, which is a vital commercial shipping route where trillions of dollars of world trade reportedly passed through.
Just last month, China’s relations with India also appeared to worsen when a military standoff started along the border they both share. Both sides blamed each other for initiating skirmishes which multiple reports said involved fist fights and stone-throwing, but the countries have since indicated their willingness to seek a diplomatic deescalation.
At the same time, Beijing increased pressure on Taiwan with frequent military drills near the island, reported Reuters. China said those drills are routine, according to the report.
China claims the self-governed island of Taiwan as its own province which could be taken by force if necessary. Beijing has touted a “one country, two systems” model which it uses on Hong Kong, but that idea was not popular with Taiwan — and even less now after months of protests in Hong Kong.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said last week his country would “resolutely oppose and deter any separatist activities seeking Taiwan independence.” Li, the second-in-command, notably dropped the word “peaceful” when he referred to “reunification” with the island.
Meanwhile, tensions have been reached fever pitch in Hong Kong as well.
The Chinese-ruled city was handed to China by the United Kingdom in 1997, and is governed under the “one country, two systems” principle which allows Hong Kong some freedoms that its mainland counterparts don’t enjoy. They include self-governing power, limited election rights, as well as a largely separate legal and economic framework from the mainland.
However, China pressed ahead to introduce a national security law in the city last week, essentially bypassing Hong Kong’s legislature.
Critics see the proposed legislation as Beijing’s move to tighten its grip on the special administration region following months of pro-democracy protests that turned violent at times.
Those issues that China has been pushing ahead with in recent months “aren’t new,” said Daly.
“What is new is them pursuing all of them with such vigor simultaneously,” he said. “And clearly they see vacuum and perhaps a lack of will from other nations, the United States in particular, to stand up for this.”