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31 May 2020

China’s growing belligerence is only hurting itself

The Hong Kong security law speaks of a power whose main problem is loneliness. 

By Jeremy Cliffe

On 28 May, China’s national legislature voted by 2,878 to one to approve a draft law curtailing the freedoms Hong Kong enjoys under the “one country, two systems” model. The decision paves the way for China to impose new security measures targeting dissent in the city and, some suggest, crush the protest movement there. It jeopardises Hong Kong’s special status – already the US is moving to withdraw privileges such as exceptions from trade tariffs – and with it its economic model and way of life.

The move drew particular condemnation from Taiwan. President Tsai Ing-wen characterised the law as “bullets… fear and crackdown” and has even offered to help Hong Kongers resettle in her country. Relations between Beijing and Taipei are at their worst in years, with Taiwan emerging confidently from the Covid-19 crisis and a growing chorus of voices (led by Australia, Japan and now the US) backing its return to the World Health Organisation (WHO) in defiance of Beijing. In response China is sharpening its rhetoric: on 29 May a general said it would “resolutely smash” any separatist moves by Taiwan.

This week also saw rising tensions on the Chinese-Indian border, with Chinese soldiers massing and reportedly crossing into the mountainous Indian-controlled territory of Ladakh. There have been reports of skirmishes earlier this month; timing that, with India struggling to contain the pandemic and its socio-economic fallout, is particularly inflammatory. On 27 May Donald Trump offered to mediate, but both sides predictably declined. China’s military brinkmanship in the Himalayas recalls comparable provocations in the South China Sea, such as its sinking last month of a Vietnamese fishing vessel.

What is Beijing’s strategy? The pandemic has on the one hand made China more defensive about perceived threats such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, and wider criticism from the outside, but on the other has also emboldened the Chinese leadership to cross old boundaries. Where once the country’s leaders talked about its “peaceful rise” as a “responsible stakeholder”, now a new breed of so-called wolf warrior diplomats (named after an action movie with nationalist overtones) are lashing out at other countries.

All of which is increasing international scepticism about China’s rise and helping to forge new anti-China alliances. The pandemic is accelerating the emergence of what the Australian geopolitical thinker Rory Medcalf calls the “Indo-Pacific”, a heterogeneous crescent of powers united by their angst over China. Regional support for Taiwan is a case in point, as is Taiwan’s prominent support for Hong Kong’s people. Further afield the new security law boosts China hawks from Tokyo to Canberra, from Washington, DC to London. That the UK, in recent years fairly craven towards China, is now risking Beijing’s wrath by offering visa rights to almost three million Hong Kong residents is one such remarkable shift.

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What is more, China’s belligerence is utterly unnecessary. The global environment is already conducive to its rise: it will soon be the biggest economy, the US is self-sabotaging under Donald Trump and would probably remain relatively inward-looking under Joe Biden, and international institutions are weak and pliable.

There are few limits on China’s military and economic power – the notion that it is threatened by tiny Hong Kong and Taiwan is absurd – what the country really lacks is friends. But for a few craven and transactional partners (Pakistan, Cambodia, Serbia and, perhaps increasingly, Russia) it is a lonely power that lacks genuinely committed and trusting allies of that sort that underpinned America’s long years of superpower-dom. China’s aggression, ultimately, hurts one country more than any other: China itself.

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