This year will go down as a memorable one for both Covid-19 and conflict. While 2020 recalls the term for clear vision, geopolitically there has been little of that, especially in China's leadership. Due to its handling of the coronavirus crisis and, more broadly, its aggressive foreign policy, Beijing has seen its soft power, taken as a measure of international popularity, decrease globally.
In recent years, China has overseen the sharp growth of its robust export-led economy, even during the pandemic. But of its 15 largest trading partners – the US, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Germany, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Australia, Canada, the UK, Singapore and Russia – it has strained relations with 12. This is not a positive development for the Chinese economy. Even the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing’s showcase US$1-trillion global infrastructure development program, will not yield immediate results for China due to both the difficult physical terrain it covers and the hostility of governments in several countries along its routes.
The Chinese leadership has to understand that the world is won by diplomacy, not diktat. When Xi Jinping became Chinese president in 2012, he promised to fulfill two goals. The first was to build a moderately prosperous Chinese society and double its per capita gross domestic product to US$10,000 by 2021, the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). His second objective was to have a rich and powerful China by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the Communist victory in the civil war and the founding of the People’s Republic. The coronavirus crisis and a series of diplomatic errors, however, have thrown China off course from achieving Xi’s vision.
Since 2013, Xi has focused on consolidating power in China. He has silenced political opponents by having them charged in a so-called anti-corruption drive. Xi was successful in removing the two-term limit on the presidency. Out of 2,964 votes, three abstained and only two voted against, thus securing him the option of continuing in office, possibly for life.
But Xi’s position is safe only when if he can provide the Chinese people with strong economic growth. Because of his insecurity, it is unlikely that China will deviate from its more aggressive foreign policy and behavior in border areas with India and in the South and East China Seas. As a result, Chinese trade and business will likely weaken, even though its economy appears to be recovering from the Covid-19 shutdown. A strong economic rebound would safeguard Xi into a third term and mitigate any threat of social unrest among those in the burgeoning Chinese middle class badly hit by the pandemic downturn.
It is not surprising then that Xi is focusing on censoring dissent, pumping more money into the system, rallying public support and tamping down discontent through appeals to nationalism. China has escalated tensions with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and others over disputed maritime border areas. It is embroiled in diplomatic and trade clashes with Australia and Canada. The Chinese military has conducted drills near Taiwan. The relationship between China and the US has sunk to its lowest point in decades, with both sides sparring over the origins of the coronavirus, a spat that has exacerbated their already acrimonious quarrels over trade and technology.
China’s greater assertiveness has inspired the revival and upgrading of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), an informal forum for the US, Japan, Australia and India to discuss mutual security interests. The Quad and the Quad Plus forum, which adds into the mix France, South Korea, Vietnam, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Singapore, Philippines and Indonesia, may signal the coalescing of middle-power alliances that could align with the United States in a challenge to Beijing.
As if all this were not enough, China recently opened another front with India near the eastern Ladakh border in the Himalayas. This resulted in a bloodbath on June 15 near the Galwan Valley, in which India lost 20 soldiers including a colonel and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) suffered an undisclosed number of casualties. Meanwhile, Beijing raised concerns around the world by moving quickly and without consultation to impose a new security law on Hong Kong that took effect on June 30.