China the Pandemic and Sovereignty

Back in 2006, we postulated that with history as our road map for the twenty-first century, we believe there are individuals with the necessary courage, knowledge, and wisdom, in both America and China, to help their respective countries find new common ground, and to recognize their mutual interests-regionally and globally. This pragmatic, rational, and time-proven methodology has the potential to transform a possible adversarial relationship into a new partnership that could fundamentally transform the Asia-Pacific Rim during the twenty-first century. But the situation has changed since then.

Today we have to look at what President  Xi Jinping says who strongly believes in what he calls “laws of history,” He requires his diplomats to believe in them and stressed the significance of studying  history that “led the people to create a new Chinese civilization with a long history.” 

Also recently during the 2021 APEC CEO Summit, he stressed that; “At this historical juncture, it is important that we in the Asia-Pacific face up to the responsibility of the times, be in the driver’s seat, and strive hard to meet the goal of building an APEC region with a shared future.”

And that when speaking of “a shared future” President  Xi will also know that Chinese laws mandate that even overseas infrastructure be designed to meet military standards. These laws authorize the military to commandeer ships, facilities, and other assets of Chinese-owned companies.

As an example of weaponizing its BRI, China is not just building overseas naval bases; it is developing ports with dual-use functionality 

The BRI is an exquisite manifestation of Xi Jinping’s dream of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” It positions China at the center of the international system, with physical, financial, cultural, technological, and political influence flowing out to the rest of the world.

And as  Singapore’s former Ministry of Foreign Affairs permanent secretary Bilahari Kausikan cleverly notes, “China doesn’t just want you to comply with its wishes, it wants you to think in such a way that you will, of your own volition, do what it wants without being told.”

China and the Pandemic

In reference to the Pandemic Xi states “Openness is the sure way for realizing human prosperity and progress.” Thus to build an Asia-Pacific community with a shared future has once again become a catchword in the news.

The WHO acknowledged privately that China did not like the name – SARS-CoV-2 – selected by the official study group of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (likely because it reminded the world of China’s role in the 2003 SARS outbreak). More significantly, the WHO also respected Beijing’s wishes by refusing to allow Taiwan to participate in WHA briefings unless it adopted Beijing’s preferred name for it: Chinese Taipei. 

China’s influence in the WHO, perhaps surprisingly, is not the result of a substantial financial contribution to the organization; the country contributes less than 1 percent of the organization’s budget. It is, however, deeply integrated into the WHO politically: a Chinese official holds a seat on the governing board and a second is in charge of overseeing the organization’s work on communicable and non-communicable diseases. China is also viewed as a very important partner in developing public health programs for the Global South. The head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has been an outspoken supporter of Chinese initiatives. Speaking at the August 2017 “High-Level Meeting for Health Cooperation: Towards a Health Silk Road” in Beijing, he applauded the HSR as the “groundwork for essential health services needed to ensure universal health care.”

The WHO’s unreserved support for Beijing throughout the pandemic raised alarm bells in other countries over undue Chinese influence. According to one public health expert, Tedros avoided criticizing China for fear of losing access to critical information. Other WHO staffers, however, were less reticent. Australian professor John Mackenzie asserted that China had tried to hide cases during the first weeks of the outbreak. He leaked recordings of internal WHO staff meetings that revealed a consensus among many staffers that China was not sharing information in a timely manner. In particular, Beijing only released the gene sequence after a lab in Shanghai had already published it on a virologist’s website. (It later emerged that one Chinese lab had sequenced most of the genome as early as December 27, a full two weeks before it was released to the public.) In addition, the WHO’s chief of emergencies, who had praised China publicly, claimed in an internal meeting that China was not cooperating the way other countries – such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo – did during the Ebola outbreak.

China and  Sovereignty

China’s unwillingness to put its sovereignty conflict with Taiwan aside in 2020 was indicative of a much larger strategic push by Beijing to reinforce its sovereignty claims while other countries were preoccupied with the pandemic. Most notably, it implemented a politically repressive National Security Law in Hong Kong; continued its detention of more than one million Uyghur Muslims in labor and reeducation camps in the country’s westernmost region, Xinjiang; and deployed its naval and other military forces across the South and East China Seas, threatening Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

China also sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat and based on a map created by cartographer Bai Meichu named more than 80 features in the South China Sea, 55 of which were underwater. In the above mentioned New Atlas of China’s Construction (中華建設新 圖), the  James Shoal (off Borneo), Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), and Seahorse Shoal (off the Philippines) are drawn as islands. Yet, in reality, they are underwater features largely due to mistranslations using what was originally a British publication. China and India also engaged in their first deadly border conflict in more than four decades.

Criticism of China’s coercive political and aggressive military behavior mounted, particularly in Europe, North America, and parts of Asia. India banned a wide array of popular Chinese apps; Europe, the UK, the US, and Canada levied sanctions against Chinese officials and entities for their actions in Xinjiang; and many countries revised their decision to allow Huawei components or software in their 5G networks. Global public opinion polls indicated that distrust in Xi Jinping’s motivations and ambitions was rising precipitously.

Yet Chinese officials did not relent. In fact, in the face of the Xinjiang sanctions, they retaliated against a number of European entities, jeopardizing an investment deal with Europe that had been seven years in the making. It was an important signal both of the relative weight of sovereignty as opposed to trading and investment among China’s strategic priorities, and of Beijing’s willingness to tolerate significant disequilibrium in the international system in pursuit of a new steady-state: a reunified and politically insulated China. The Recovery During fall 2020, China mounted a renewed effort to assume a leadership position in responding to the pandemic. It joined COVAX, the international initiative to ensure a degree of equity in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, after initially rejecting participation. Several senior Chinese foreign policy analysts had argued publicly that joining would be in China’s best interest. They noted that it would send an important signal to the international community that China was not simply “sweeping its own snow in front of the door” but instead was interested in helping others. They also offered an array of less altruistic motivations, including improving Beijing’s image, assisting in the global economic recovery (which they suggested would serve the country’s economic interests), and establishing China’s vaccine as an internationally recognized brand.1

Xi Jinping uses the various elements of his unique foreign policy playbook to realize his strategic ambitions. Taken together, they also suggest several broader conclusions. 

First, Xi’s overarching strategic priority is to maintain sovereignty and social stability in the near term and to realize the unification of China over the longer term. Moreover, he is willing to tolerate significant disequilibrium in the international system to achieve a new, more desirable end steady state of a reunified China. Xi’s repressive policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, for example, resulted in international censure, as well as coordinated economic sanctions by the European Union, UK, Canada, and the United States; his retaliatory sanctions then threatened a major trade deal with the EU. The border conflict with India led Prime Minister Modi to strengthen security and other ties with the Quad. In addition, China’s wolf warrior diplomacy – designed to control the international political narrative to avoid a domestic legitimacy crisis – contributed to a steep drop in Xi’s and China’s global standing. Yet this backlash failed to persuade China to change course. Finally, Beijing’s willingness (as seen above) to exclude Taiwan from the WHA briefings during the pandemic further demonstrated its determination to place its sovereignty interests over both the welfare of the Taiwanese people and the larger global good.

Second, while China is not exporting communism, it is exporting elements of its authoritarian political model. In the same way that it controls speech domestically, Beijing seeks to limit the ability of international actors to speak freely about China. Traditionally, Beijing has concentrated on ensuring that other countries acknowledge its sovereignty claims, using the leverage of its market or access to the country to coerce them to do so or to punish them if they do not. Chinese red lines are proliferating, however. China initiated a boycott against Australian exports in response to Canberra’s call for a COVID-19 inquiry; it also expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters in response to an article that referred to China as the “sick man of Asia.” Virtually any issue can now be labeled a threat to Chinese sovereignty or social stability. China also exports its model more directly via the BRI. It trains officials in some BRI countries on how to censor the internet, control civil society, and build a robust single-party state. It also transfers its development model through the BRI in the form of debt-induced infrastructure development with weak transparency, labor, environmental, and legal standards. Finally, Chinese officials use their leadership positions within the UN and other international institutions to shape the values and norms of those bodies in ways that align with China’s political interests: for example, by preventing Uyghur Muslim dissidents from speaking before UN bodies and by advancing Chinese technology norms, such as a state-controlled internet in global standard-setting bodies.

Third, Xi has made substantial progress in realizing his strategic vision, but continued success is far from inevitable. The very characteristics that have enabled China to achieve its foreign policy objectives in the near term now risk undermining its future progress. Within its own backyard, China has defeated a broad-based push for democracy and cemented CCP control in Hong Kong, prevented Taiwan from gaining voice within the United Nations, and enhanced its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. Efforts to create a more Sinocentric Asia Pacific have also made progress. The Chinese leadership successfully led the negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in November 2020, which stands as the largest trading bloc in the world and serves as an important step forward in asserting China’s leadership within the Asia Pacific. The Chinese military has also significantly enhanced its capabilities in the region. In addition, China has managed impressive gains in shaping the world beyond its backyard. Through the BRI, and particularly the Digital Silk Road, China is increasingly the provider of choice as the world builds out its technological infrastructure for the 21st century. It has won contracts to deploy Huawei 5G technology throughout much of Africa and, increasingly, in Latin America and the Middle East. Its media companies project a more positive China narrative to tens of millions of citizens globally. And in international institutions, China has made headway in advancing its human rights, internet governance, and development norms. 

Increasingly, however, China’s state-centered model has limited the credibility and attraction of many of its initiatives. Private Chinese technology companies such as Huawei and ByteDance face growing constraints in accessing global markets. Countries are increasingly rejecting Chinese investments over concerns that they are part of a CCP-directed strategy to support its military expansion. Chinese cultural initiatives such as Confucius Institutes (CIs) have also diminished in popularity because they are perceived to be agents of Chinese propaganda. In addition, the predilection of some Chinese officials who serve in UN bodies to act in the interest of China as opposed to the broader mission of the UN has provoked efforts by other countries to push back against Chinese initiatives and support alternative candidates for senior UN positions. China’s future ability to achieve its broader foreign policy objectives is thus increasingly compromised by its insistence that it control both state and non-state actors. 

In many developing and middle-income countries, as well, the export of China’s development model through the BRI is incurring significant political and economic costs. There are frequent popular protests around the lack of transparency, weak environmental and labor safeguards, and concerns around debt repayment plans. COVID-19 placed particular stress on BRI deals, with the Chinese government reporting that 60 percent had been adversely affected. Newly elected leaders often seek to reset BRI deal terms, describing them as grossly unfair and the product of their predecessors’ corruption or weak negotiation skills. Several countries in Central and Eastern Europe have become disillusioned with the paucity of Chinese investment and are considering withdrawing from the 17+1 framework. The BRI also has not yielded significant political benefits for China more broadly. There is no correlation, for example, between states that receive the most BRI investment and those that support China on thorny political issues such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong, or the South China Sea.

Fourth, China’s exercise of sharp and hard power in the Asia Pacific has served to bind more tightly rather than unravel US-led alliances and partnerships. Beijing’s wolf warrior diplomacy, defiance of freedom of navigation norms in the South China Sea, aggressive military activity around sovereignty issues, including Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Sino-Indian border, and the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, and the crackdown on Hong Kong have all contributed to strengthening relations among the larger Asian powers, such as the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. In the face of Chinese assertiveness, major European countries, including the UK, France, and Germany, are also all becoming more deeply engaged in Asian regional security. Popular opinion polls throughout Asia indicate significant distrust of Xi Jinping and little interest in Chinese regional leadership, even among countries deeply dependent on China, such as Cambodia. This backlash raises the costs for China of future efforts to assert sovereignty over Taiwan and the South China Sea and constrains its ability to achieve its objective of replacing the United States as the preeminent power in the Asia Pacific.

Fifth, China does not appear prepared to supplant the United States as the world’s sole superpower. Across a range of issues, including climate change, public health, trade, and economic development, China’s leaders desire to occupy a position in which their values and policy preferences determine the nature of the institutions, but in which their contribution to those institutions and to global public goods is aligned closely with their own narrower domestic political and economic interests. They seek a voice in shaping the international system that is equivalent to, or greater than, that of the United States, but they do not want to shoulder the burdens associated with the latter’s sole superpower status. 

Finally, China’s emergence as a global power is typically portrayed as a story of a rising power threatening the status quo power, in this case, the United States. Xi himself gives credence to this framing with his frequent references to “the East is rising and the West is declining,” and by asserting in March 2021 that the United States was the “biggest threat to our country’s development and security.”2 Certainly, the United States has played an important role in identifying the challenges presented by Xi’s ambition and strategy and in mobilizing others to resist Chinese efforts to transform the geostrategic landscape in ways that undermine norms and values such as freedom of navigation or the rule of law.

Framing the challenge in this bilateral, zero-sum way, however, is misleading and serves China’s interest: any relative gain by China as the rising power is immediately perceived as a loss for the United States; Beijing can characterize any competitive or even confrontational US policy as simply trying to contain China; it isolates the United States from its allies and partners by suggesting that it has a unique set of China-related interests and concerns. 

Instead, the fundamental challenge presented by China is to the broader values, norms, and institutions that underpin the current rules-based order. As China’s senior-most foreign official, Yang Jiechi, stated in March 2021, “What China and the international community follow or uphold is the United Nations-centered international system and the international order underpinned by international law, not what is advocated by a small number of countries of the so-called rules-based international order.”3 Notwithstanding the fact that the rules-based order established in the post-World War II period is enshrined in a wide array of UN laws and conventions, as the following chapters reveal, the challenge China is delivering to both the rules-based order and the UN system is evident. And framed this way, the rest of the world also has a much clearer stake in the outcome.

China’s application of soft and hard power

As an example of its soft power strategy, the Chinese embassy in Prague played a significant role in influencing Czech scholarship on China. It funded a course on the benefits of the BRI, which rewarded students who wrote the best essays with an all-paid trip to China.4 It also funded the university’s Czech–Chinese Centre to support conferences that would positively reflect China.5

Li Changchun stated, “The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for expanding our culture abroad. It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power. The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching the Chinese language, everything looks reasonable.” 6

In January 2008, we referred to the ‘soft’ power of The Confucius Institutes whereby by August 2019, it had become overtly apparent the ominous role Confucius Institutes are capable of playing.

Countries are increasingly rejecting Chinese investments over concerns that they are part of a CCP-directed strategy to support its military expansion. Chinese cultural initiatives such as Confucius Institutes (CIs) have also diminished in popularity because they are perceived as agents of Chinese propaganda.

Number of Confucius Institutes worldwide from 2004 to 2020:

Chinese media partnerships can also serve the interests of local governments to limit dissenting opinions. In Cambodia, for example, the Hun Sen government eliminated 275 publications and revoked licenses for more than 15 radio stations. In their place, it welcomed the Chinese firm NICE Culture Investment Group, which partnered with Cambodia’s Interior Ministry to establish NICE TV. The programming now includes shows that are favorable to the Cambodian government and China.7

Two seasoned China reporters, David Lague and Benjamin Kang Lim published a special report for Reuters, “How China is replacing America as Asia’s military titan,” which detailed the dramatic expansion in China’s military capabilities under Xi Jinping, noting: “In just over two decades, China has built a force of conventional missiles that rival or outperform those in the US army.” 8 Just six months earlier, a blue-ribbon panel had issued a review of the National Defense Strategy “Providing for the Common Defense” that highlighted America’s lack of preparedness. The report was filled with dire language. It asserted that “US military superiority is no longer assured” and that the United States might “struggle to win, or perhaps lose,” a war against China or Russia.9

China has made significant strides in enhancing the quality and preparedness of its military forces. In a report on the country’s land-based conventional missile forces trajectory, the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes that China has developed the world’s “largest and most diverse” arsenal of ground-launched ballistic missiles.10

China also maintains the world’s third-largest nuclear force. In its annual “China Military Power” report to Congress in 2020, the US Defense Department cited the modernization and expansion of China’s nuclear capabilities as part of its pursuit of a “nuclear triad,” including the development of a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile, alongside its ground and sea-based atomic capabilities.11

Continue to parts two and three.

1. “中国加入‘新冠肺炎疫苗实施计划’ [China joins ‘Novel Coronavirus Vaccine Implementation Plan’],” Chinese Academy of Sciences, October 10, 2020.

2. Mark Moore, “Xi Jinping calls US ‘biggest threat’ to China’s security,” New York Post, March 3, 2021

3. “How it happened: transcript of the US-China opening remarks in Alaska,” Nikkei Asia March 19, 2021. 

4. Alžběta Bajerová, “The Czech–Chinese center of influence: how Chinese embassy in Prague secretly funded activities at the top Czech university,” China Observers, November 7, 2019.

5. Daniela Lazarová, “Czech–Chinese center at Charles University to be closed down,” Czech Radio, November 13, 2019.

6. Ethan Epstein, “How China infiltrated US classrooms,” Politico, January 16, 2018.

7. Nathan Vanderklippe, “In Cambodia, independent media close as Chinese content moves in,” Globe and Mail, December 29, 2017.

8. David Lague and Benjamin Kang Lim, “Special Report: How China is replacing America as Asia’s military titan,” Reuters, April 23, 2019.

9. “Providing for the Common Defense,” Commission on the National Defense Strategy for the United States, November 13, 2018.

10. “How are China’s land-based conventional missile forces evolving?” China Power, September 21, 2020.

11. “Military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2020,” US Department of Defense, September 1, 2020.

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