“China is no longer afraid of anyone. The times when the Chinese people were subordinate to others and lived dependent on the whims of others are over, never to return ”. This is how Zhang Xiaoming, the deputy director of the Hong Kong Affairs Office within the Chinese government, boasted during a press conference on Wednesday about the draconian National Security law for the autonomous territory. That day, that rule came into force, which has immediately aggravated the already significant tensions between Beijing and the West. Another in the series of international clashes that China has recently starred in, with increasing assertiveness and despite the covid-19 pandemic.
In recent months, the list of incidents seems to grow almost daily. Two weeks ago, his Army clashed with that of India in the bloodiest border incident in more than 50 years. In the South China Sea it has collided with the Philippines and Vietnam: this week, both countries have clamored against "enormously provocative" Chinese military maneuvers. The United States has sent two aircraft carriers to the area this weekend to support "a free and open Indo-Pacific region," amid mutual recriminations between Washington and Beijing of fueling tensions in the area. Previously, Beijing has had friction with Japan over the islands that both dispute in the East China Sea; their fighters have flown the skies near Taiwan on several occasions.
Beyond its immediate borders, Beijing has become embroiled in a dispute with Australia over the investigation of the origins of covid-19; It is in a bitter fight with Canada after accusing two Canadians detained of espionage in apparent retaliation for the Vancouver arrest of Huawei's chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou. The mask diplomacy and attempts to politicize Chinese humanitarian aid caused severe irritation in many countries. Differences with the EU on Hong Kong, human rights or trade policy were exposed during the videoconference summit held two weeks ago. And relations with the United States are going from bad to worse.
Phrases similar to those of Zhang, the senior Chinese government official in Hong Kong, are heard more and more frequently, and more emphatically, from the mouths of wolf warriors (warrior wolves), the new batch of Chinese diplomats headed by Foreign Minister Zhao Lijian and who defend, with harsh language, Beijing's positions from social networks – Twitter, especially, despite being banned in their country – and any other pulpit.
China claims that its movements are purely defensive, and that it is limited to reacting to pressure from others. No kind of pressure "can undermine their determination and willingness to safeguard national sovereignty," Zhao stressed about Hong Kong this week.
That Beijing exerts pressure on other countries is not new or something that other states do not do. But it has been on an upward trend for some time, as it has grown in power. According to data from Ketian Zhang, an adjunct professor at George Mason University in Virginia (USA) and an international relations specialist in China, in the 1990s there were nine episodes of coercion, most of a military nature. Between 2010 and 2017, they exceeded twenty, almost all of an economic and diplomatic nature.
In part, this most recent phase of Chinese assertiveness may be due to the coronavirus pandemic, in the opinion of some experts. To a desire to seize the opportunity while the world is distracted by the fight against illness, but also to respond to the internal situation that the illness has created.
Inside China "Xi (Jinping, the Chinese president) faces a lot of pressure from the pandemic, from the economy and the management of the virus at the beginning," says Taylor Fravel, an expert in Chinese defense policy at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). ). Beijing's more aggressive attitude would seek to "dispel any feeling that China is weak" at this time.
And in part, this renewed affirmation of its position comes due to the climate of growing global tensions, and the conviction within the Chinese Government that the decoupling, the separation of economic and technological ties with the United States, is not only inevitable but even advisable, to avoid dependencies that could endanger their interests.
"Although ties with the United States are deteriorating – and that is something that has accelerated during the pandemic – that is not going to imply moderation on the issues that China really cares about," says Fravel. Rather, quite the opposite: "When China perceives that it is being challenged in any of its sovereignty disputes in this era, it will respond with a very hard line," emphasizes the expert.
As China has become more assertive, the response to its international behavior grows. Australia has announced a military expenditure of 186,000 million dollars (about 165,400 million euros) for the next decade, an increase of 40%. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned that the Indo-Pacific region will be "the focus of the dominant global warfare of our age." Japan, according to the newspaper Nikkei, is going to deepen its intelligence collaboration with Australia, India, the UK and France to – among other things – share data on Chinese troop movements. Taiwan reopens its offices in the US territory of Guam. The Quad, the informal association for security issues formed by Japan, Australia, the United States and India, gains new strength after the border brawl in the Himalayas. The latter country has just proposed the purchase of military equipment from Russia worth 4.6 billion euros.
Distrust also extends to the economic plane. Among other measures, this week, New Delhi has banned 59 apps Chinese, including the very popular TikTok, in a step that the short video application calculates can cost you 6,000 million dollars (5,300 million euros). The UK has changed its mind about Huawei's involvement in its 5G network. Japan and Taiwan have announced incentives for their companies to leave China, and the United States is calling for a redrawing of supply lines.
In addition, the United States and the European Union find that, despite the transatlantic divergences of the Trump era, their positions are increasingly close when it comes to Beijing. The European representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, last month proposed a bilateral dialogue on China. “American and European views on China – both its behavior and its political response – are converging. The Chinese Party-state that the United States and the EU face is very different now from the one with which they have both sought to collaborate over the past four decades, ”the report says. Dealing with the Dragon: China as a Transatlantic Challenge (Managing the dragon: China as a transatlantic challenge), published this week and produced by the US Asia Society, George Washington University and the German Bertelsmann Stiftung.
Not because of greater, or more obvious now, the pressure that China can exert is no longer highly calculated. According to Ketian Zhang, "it is more likely to exercise coercion when it perceives a great need to establish a reputation as a country that is firm and determined in the defense of its national security interests." Or also as a warning gesture: "Kill a chicken in order to scare the monkey", according to the Chinese expression, or pressure a country so that others take notice.
This pressure has limits. China coerces "as long as it does not endanger something that it wants or needs, if the state (which it presses) has something that China wants." If the financial cost is high, Beijing is less likely to be very assertive. Furthermore, although it has, on the one hand, an interest in building a reputation as a firm country in its interests, on the other “it does not want an alliance against it, and aspires to a stable and prosperous economic climate. Both things are in tension and there is no way to combine them ”, says the expert.
Looking ahead, if the trend toward disconnection continues (the decoupling), In the long run, "if China is not as dependent economically on the United States, Japan or the European Union as before, then it will have fewer restrictions or concerns, and we could see more of this coercive behavior," Zhang says.
In this sense, the former German ambassador to China and current vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Volker Stanzel, one of the authors of Dealing with the Dragon, he clarifies: “The disconnection will not benefit anyone. We have to defend the system and convince China not to happen. "