Chinese President Xi Jinping is amassing power at home at an unprecedented pace and at the same time he is struggling to showcase the potency of China’s much vaunted comprehensive national power. The more aggressive Chinese tactics are becoming, the strategic picture for Beijing’s ambitions is becoming ever more complicated. Xi wants the world to know that China has finally arrived but the world is increasingly seems more interested in the pathway to that arrival.
Last month at a special virtual summit between China and ASEAN states to mark three decades of dialogue relations, Xi was seen trying to reassure South-east Asian nations that Beijing will not bully its smaller neighbours. Underscoring that “China was, is, and will always be ASEAN’s good neighbour, good friend and good partner,” Chinese President was busy “unswervingly” supporting ASEAN unity and centrality, as well as the grouping playing a bigger role in regional and international affairs. There was aid from Beijing in terms of Covid-19 vaccines and funds to support the grouping’s pandemic response but one would have thought that after more than thirty year’s worth of diplomatic and economic investment, coercion and bullying would not really be the topic of discussion.
But clearly not. In China’s case today, every relationship is about coercion. And the ASEAN is also trying to push back in its own subtle ways. The ASEAN leaders did not relent to Chinese lobbying that Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing be allowed to attend the session and forced Myanmar to send a non-political representative. The joint statement that was issued after the summit reaffirmed the importance of upholding international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and a commitment to the freedom of navigation in and flights over the South China Sea. It was in sync with the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, a geography that China continues to be in opposition to.
Such soft balancing against China by some of its closest partners in the region may not really have any substantive impact on the ground. Beijing continues with its aggression in the South China Sea. It is asserting its claims in the contested waters increasingly through the use of grey-zone tactics for which others are yet to find an adequate response. Use of militia fleets to push its claims in disputed territories allows its plausible deniability even as ASEAN member states find it hard to present a united front against such brazen attempts at territory grabbing. Just a few days before Xi was talking about not being a bully, his Coast Guard was blocking boats carrying supplies to the Philippine military in the disputed Spratly Islands and was firing water cannon on the vessels. While the Philippines raised it at the summit, other nations were content with generalities.
This grey-zone warfare of China is also on full display when it comes to Taiwan where there have been repeated incursions by China’s air force in the southwestern part of Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, or ADIZ, close to the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands. It is an attempt to test Taiwan’s defences as well as to test the red-lines of the US. Beijing is willing to play this dangerous game of escalation, increasing tensions across the Taiwan Strait, to challenge Washington’s credibility as a security partner in the region.
With the Covid-19 pandemic showing no signs of abating anytime soon, China’s role in the original outbreak of the novel coronavirus continues to be a major topic of debate. Taking aim at China’s initial response, the US has been quick to praise South Africa for quickly identifying the new Covid strain called Omicron and sharing this information with the world. The US State Department said: “Secretary Blinken specifically praised South Africa’s scientists for the quick identification of the Omicron variant and South Africa’s government for its transparency in sharing this information, which should serve as a model for the world.” Much as China would like the world to move on, China’s lack of transparency on the origins of the coronavirus, which was first detected in December 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan, will continue to shape global perception of China for the foreseeable future.
Xi Jinping is morphing into Emperor Xi at home. His third five-year term has been formalised by the landmark resolution of the Communist Party of China earlier this month that places him with Mao Zedong and Karl Marx among the pantheon of socialist greats. With all this power, he has marginalised his opponents in China. But abroad, his power is yet to find its purpose. If the purpose of Chinese power is to emerge as the undisputed leader in the world, then its actions over the last few years are beginning to produce a set of reactions from various quarters that might make it difficult for Xi to achieve his global agenda. Xi’s agenda is slowly, but surely, getting unmasked and brute force may no longer be able to deliver.