On Tuesday, the same day news broke about the violent clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh, in which at last 20 Indian soldiers died , a Chinese J-10 fighter briefly entered Taiwan’s air defence zone, prompting the self-ruled island to scramble its aircraft in response. This was the third Chinese incursion into Taiwan’s airspace within a week. Two months ago, Chinese vessels had entered the waters of Malaysia and Vietnam. Last month, Chinese Coast Guard ships pursued Japanese fishing boats in waters claimed by both countries. All these incidents point to a newfound aggressiveness in China’s approach towards its already troubled neighbourhood, from the Himalayas to the South and East China Seas.
Also read: What explains the India-China border flare-up?
Tensions in the neighbourhood are not new for China. The roughly 4,000 km-long India-China border, which is not clearly demarcated, has seen occasional flare-ups. In 2017, troops from both countries were locked in a face-off in the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction of Doklam for over two months. China has claims over the South China Sea and “reunification” with Taiwan is one of its self-declared goals. But what makes the current stand-offs different is China’s readiness to use force in addressing these challenges. This was the first time in 45 years that blood was spilt on the India-China border. Last month, in an annual policy blueprint, China dropped the word “peaceful” in referring to its desire to “reunify” with Taiwan, ending a nearly 30-year-long precedent.
This sharp turn marks China’s most major policy decisions post-COVID-19. Relations with the U.S. are particularly bad, with the Trump administration now openly targeting China for its handling of the pandemic. China has already slammed the U.S.’s “Cold War mentality”, referring to the period of the U.S.-Soviet contest. When Australia pushed for investigation into the pandemic outbreak, Beijing punished the country by imposing trade curbs. Earlier this week, an Australian citizen was sentenced to death in China over drug trafficking, complicating relations further. In Hong Kong, which has been seeing anti-China protests for a year, Beijing has introduced a new national security law, granting itself broader powers in the Special Administrative Region. If Xi Jinping was facing one the biggest crises of his Presidency early this year, in the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak, he now appears to be firmly in control, overseeing an expansive foreign policy that pushes the boundaries.
Also read: Forgotten in fog of war, the last firing on the India-China border
“The ‘peaceful rise’ is now out of the question. They think they have arrived,” said Alka Acharya, Professor of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. President Hu Jintao, Mr. Xi’s predecessor, had adopted the “peaceful rise” (or “peaceful development”, as the the Chinese later called it) policy to assure other countries, especially the U.S. and China’s Asian neighbours, that the country’s rise did not pose any threat to others. China came out of it long ago, Prof. Acharya told The Hindu . “The whole series of positions China has taken with respect to Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, national sovereignty or whatever problems they have with the U.S. are nothing new. The question is what are the elements in China’s behaviour today which are different from what had happened in the past,” she pointed out.
The virus factor
In Prof. Acharya’s view, COVID-19 has brought on a “sharper turn” to China’s foreign policy because: “suddenly, it was quite obvious that China was on the back foot. It was getting very bad press all around. Other countries were speaking out against its handling of the outbreak. The Americans are now open about building a coalition against China. So a lot of China’s response is part of their way of tackling this crisis. We are going to fight back is the message from Beijing.”
But China has always contested such analysis. In its version, China is a rising, responsible power and some tensions are part of its rise. The “China Dream”, laid out by President Xi after he took power in 2012, seeks to turn the country into wealthy, strong and modern global power by 2049, the centenary of the Communist revolution.
From differences to disputes
“I would like to think of China’s diplomatic situation as something a growing country has to meet and deal with day-to-day,” said Qi Haotian, Assistant Professor, School of International Studies, Peking University, Beijing. “It’s easy to get amplified. However, I think what we have been seeing is not surprising or dishearteningly alarming. As long as China takes it seriously that peaceful coexistence and development serve her interests ultimately, tensions of any kind should probably be taken as temporal processes,” he told The Hindu .
“I personally do not see current tensions, clashes, disputes or conflicts between China and other countries as existentially alarming for any side, as long as we faithfully attempt to address the issues with everything in our toolkit, bilaterally and institutionally. There will be troubles. They are also good learning opportunities for every stakeholder to better coexist and cooperate for the greater collective good,” said Prof. Qi.
Prof. Acharya, however, sees a clear shift. “This [aggressive] narrative is being spelt out very systematically. Between India and China, they used to say ‘don’t let differences become disputes’. What’s happening now is that, across the spectrum, where differences which predate COVID-19, that predate even the ‘peaceful rise’ policy, are now literally becoming disputes. Let’s face it.”