While the world is consumed with the COVID-19 pandemic, China continues to destabilize the Indo-Pacific region and try to reshape the international order so that it is more favorable to its authoritarian system and quest for regional dominance.
Key areas where Japan and other Indo-Pacific stakeholders are facing challenges include the East China and the South China seas. We are also seeing China actively striving to change the COVID-19 narrative to expand its influence globally.
Despite the apparent warming of Sino-Japanese relations and the global turbulence associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen 36 incursions of Chinese vessels identified within Japan’s contiguous zone, and four Chinese vessels identified within Japan’s territorial sea between April 1 and 11, according to the Japan Coast Guard.
These violations of Japanese sovereignty are part of a long and proactive track record of intruding into Japanese territory.
In the South China Sea, we are seeing China engaging in naval exercises with the Liaoning aircraft carrier group transiting the Miyako Straits and Bashi Channel. This Chinese naval presence in the South China Sea is part of Beijing’s efforts to seize the window of tactical opportunity with many powerful rivals distracted by the COVID-19 crisis at home.
At the same time, having tackled the first wave of the coronavirus outbreak, Beijing is wanting to brandish its nationalist credentials for the domestic audience to distract its citizens from the health and economic consequences of its draconian approach to COVID-19.
Leaders in Beijing understand that their position is precarious. They badly mishandled the initial outbreak, incurring the wrath of Chinese citizens. At the same time, there is a COVID-19 schizophrenia among citizens in that China’s quick lock-down enabled them to not experience the numbers of infections and deaths that the United States and Europe are experiencing.
Endeavoring to win back the confidence of their citizens, policymakers are using the aircraft carrier group maneuvers in the South China Sea to demonstrate strength to their domestic audience in the wake of growing criticism from abroad while also sending a strong signal to claimants of territories in the South China Sea that force remains an option for securing Beijing’s core interests.
These operations in the East China Sea and the South China Sea demonstrate to regional neighbors and the U.S. that China’s military capabilities remain robust and active in the key areas of the Indo-Pacific despite the damage inflicted on its economy.
The demonstration of its naval capabilities and willingness to engage in drills to demonstrate its commitment to securing its core interests is a message for ASEAN countries such as Vietnam. Beijing wants to convey to any potential foe that it will not compromise on what it considers its core interests, even at a time of extreme duress at home.
Without a doubt, this position places countries such as Vietnam, with its nonalignment principle, in a difficult position. Vietnam and other states should continue to think creatively how they can bring in extra-regional powers such as Australia, Japan, India, the U.S. and others to decrease the incentive for expansionist behavior by China.
For Japan, these activities in the East China Sea and the South China Sea demonstrate that the tactical entente negotiated between Tokyo and Beijing remains inane. On Tokyo’s side, Beijing has done little to nothing to allay Japan’s concerns about Chinese assertiveness in the East China and South China seas. Not exhibiting restraint at a time of global turmoil further consolidates the view that Beijing’s pursuit of regional hegemony will not be deterred by diplomacy, the Japan-U.S. alliance or a global pandemic.
On the diplomatic front as well, it appears that China is attempting to seize the mantle of global provider of public health goods by providing health equipment, masks and expertise to accepting countries around the world.
Coined as “mask diplomacy,” this provision of medical equipment and expertise is meant to demonstrate China’s capability and capacity to provide for a global public good. Chinese President Xi Jinping has already tried to leverage the COVID-19 pandemic to advocate for a “Health Silk Road.” This ambiguous initiative is associated with the Belt and Road initiative and aims to connect China to Europe through a health initiative with the purpose of “perfecting the global public health governance.”
While any contribution to global health should be welcomed, the government of China has been actively eschewing responsibility for unleashing a global pandemic that not only will result in the highest number of peacetime deaths in many countries but has also unleashed an economic tsunami that will reverberate for years to come.
In an Op-Ed piece by Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai that ran in The New York Times on April 5 as well an “Open Letter to the People of the United States From 100 Chinese Scholars” on April 2 in The Diplomat, the ambassador and prominent scholars correctly stressed the importance of cooperating in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Notwithstanding, their artful suggestion that the coronavirus origins are dubious and that the COVID-19 pandemic was unrelated to the authoritarian system’s lack of transparency and inability of medical professionals and citizens to express themselves freely rings hollow at best, or as a highly manipulative effort to rewrite the history of the pandemic at worse.
Furthermore, what is also interesting about the ambassador and scholars’ letters is that they advocated for a joint China-U.S. led response to the global pandemic instead of an international response with Japan, Europe, etc.
By arguing that “as two of the great countries on Earth, cooperation between China and the U.S. could, and should, be used to bring a more positive outcome for all humankind” and “as the two biggest economies in the world, China and the United States need to lead international efforts in collaborative research into treatments and vaccines, and explore the sharing of pharmaceutical technologies among nations,” the scholars and ambassador are indirectly advocating for China’s long-cherished strategic objective — a new model of great power relations in which China and the U.S. shape a new international order.
This is not in the interest of Japan and other middle powers. Any global response to COVID-19 must be based on transparency, rule of law and the free participation of citizens.
South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong have led the way in terms of providing a model of how to deal with a global pandemic based on the principles above. The jury is still out on Japan.
With the world struggling to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, we should be keenly aware that Beijing is actively embodying J.R.R. Tolkien’s comment on his epic novel “Lord of the Rings” that “I wisely started with a map and made the story fit.” Finding opportunity in disarray, Beijing is proactively making the COVID-19 pandemic fit its long-term national strategic objectives.
Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.