Chinese Opening Gambits Post COVID-19

Recent aggressive Chinese moves have given rise to concerns that China is exploiting the distraction of the pandemic to push its own geopolitical agenda.

Springing a Surprise

While geopolitics are not hostage to pandemics or any other act of nature and tend to have their own dynamics and trajectories, yet the recent political and military moves made by China have left the world with a degree of unease. With the world still in the midst of a pandemic, China watchers have been surprised by Chinese aggressiveness so soon after its Wuhan crisis.  Recent Chinese geopolitical gambits send unambiguous signals that the pandemic has in no way slowed China’s relentless march to global primacy. 

The first major shock was the approval by the National People’s Congress (NPC) of the People’s Republic of China of a new national security law to be extended to Hong Kong. 

The other significant issue revolves around the India China border flare-up. While border standoffs between the two militaries during the summer months are not extraordinary, it is the scale and choice of location that has caused ripples amidst strategic circles.

These two incidents are not in isolation. While the world has been side blinded by the virus, Chinese have been active in the South China Sea sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat, threatened a Malaysian offshore oil platform and have been admonishing Taiwan. 

Tightening the Vice on Hong Kong

It may be recollected that a similar bill raised in Hong Kong in 2003 had triggered a political storm and had to be shelved.  

It has always been Beijing’s contention that the unrest in Hong Kong has its roots overseas.  With the new security law for Hong Kong, it intends to plug the “foreign interference” in the politics of Hong Kong. With Chinese proclivity not to dither once a decision has been made, it is feared by those who cherish the unique freedom enjoyed by Hong Kong despite being part of an authoritarian state, that within a few months, the new law would be effective.  The bill will permit Chinese national security organs to set up their agencies in Hong Kong, thus extending their reach over Hong Kong.

When China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong from its colonisers, the British, in 1997, the deal was finalised under the “one country, two systems” principle. This ensured that Hong Kong, for at least the next 50 years, would continue to have an independent judiciary, a separate legislature and freedom of speech and political activities.  Vide article 18 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the PRC is restricted from applying its mainland laws on the territory, except those related to national defence and external policy.

The dual standards for Hong Kong have suited China’s economic interests as Hong Kong was the “golden goose” that attracted significant investments. So does the new law spell the doom of the “one country two systems” principle? In any case, China has been assiduously nibbling away at the autonomy of its city-state for some years now and perhaps; the unending mass protests have forced its hand. 

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang assured the international community that the "one country, two systems" principle remains intact.  " 'One country, two systems' is China’s basic state policy, the Central Government has all along fully and faithfully implemented (the system) in which the people of Hong Kong govern Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy,” he said.

Ratcheting Up Tensions along Himalayan Frontiers

In a fresh development, which has the potential to turn into a serious flashpoint, a large PLA contingent intruded into the Galwan Valley in Ladakh.  This area is well within the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which although not demarcated or delineated yet is accepted by both India and China as a working international boundary. In response, India has also staged forward its troops and upgraded its alert levels to deal with any contingency.

While the Galwan Valley intrusion is the major focal point, there are other intrusions at multiple points along the LAC, giving rise to unprecedented military tensions. Mechanisms exist at local levels to deal with such standoffs. However, the size, composition and level of preparedness of Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley indicate their intention to dig down and hold their position.

International Reactions 

There has been widespread criticism in the western media of the Chinese action. The U.S. already engaged in a bitter feud with China over the COVID 19 infection, was especially vociferous in its criticism, claiming that “ the NPC’s decision means Hong Kong is no longer politically autonomous from mainland China.” It has threatened to revoke the special status afforded to the city-state extending favourable trading terms. 

This, married with further US sanctions, is a threat to China’s economy. Worse still, it would be fatal to Hong Kong’s standing as one of the world’s major financial centres. This is in line with the recently released U.S. China strategy, addressing the military threat posed by China, including its economic espionage. 

Indian response to the intrusion at the political level has been muted as obviously the government is keen to de-escalate at the earliest and get on with the fight against the virus which is not showing any signs of abating.  President Trump’s offer on Twitter to mediate surprised both parties and neither responded to it.

Timing of the Chinese Move

While these brash encounters may seem as if China is trying to expand its global presence by utilising the unprecedented scenario offered by the pandemic to her advantage, the overall picture is more complex. China too has its plate full, and it is illogical to burden itself with additional challenges. Xi Jinping is on record reasserting the same.

Are these sudden aggressions a smokescreen for the larger looming issue of accountability for the origin of COVID19 and concealing its presence? Beijing has imposed a massive 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley imports for five years due to Australia pushing for coronavirus investigation to establish Chinese culpability in its rise.

Apparently, these actions are viewed by China as defensive to safeguard its national interests.  

 As regards the LAC, neither China nor India can appear to look weak at the border flare-up due to domestic political compulsions. However, force is not the solution.  The Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava stated “We are engaged with the Chinese side to peacefully resolve it;” while his Chinese counterpart Zhao Lijian quoted “We are capable of properly resolving the issues between us through dialogue and consultation. We do not need the intervention of the third party.”

India has over the years upgrading the infrastructure along its northern borders to make it compatible with its rapid deployment strategy.  This has not escaped Chinese notice, and the recent culmination of a strategic road project in the Shyok Valley leading to a forward Landing Ground at Daulat Beg Oldie, close to the Galwan Valley could have been the trigger for the Chinese intrusion.  

“The military skirmishes and standoffs with India seem to reflect Beijing’s calculation that India’s still increasing Covid-19 infections, coupled with its economic downturn, place it in no position to wage a border conflict,” as per  Brahma Chellaney of the Indian  Centre for Policy Research.

Assessment

  • The NPC is trying to meet its goal of a “Reunified China” during a precarious time in addition to its goal of meeting the deadline of creating a moderately well-off society, all within 2020. The fact that China has more or less reached a “COVID safe” state while the rest of the world is still struggling may have encouraged China to play its geopolitical cards.
  • This move will come at a price. The new law stands to undermine Hong Kong’s legal, financial and political systems from mainland China and threatens to jeopardise its ranking as an attractive international financial hub.
  • The LAC tensions with India may just be a sign of intent, sending a strong message to its neighbour over India's revocation of Article 370 which changed the autonomous status of J&K, and hence the dynamics of the territorial disputes in Aksai Chin and Pak Occupied Kashmir (POK). However, the real issue is Hong Kong, with its unrest refusing to go away. China has no doubt that it is being fuelled by external forces and fanned by a partisan western media and hence, it wishes to tighten its reins over the city-state before it is too late and the virus of mass protests infects the mainland.

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