Beijing may have seen its global standing take a hit due to the coronavirus — and a widespread perception that China mismanaged the initial handling of it — but as the country increasingly gets back to normal, it’s also finding itself in a rarefied position of strength compared to the continued disruption seen in much of the world.
This is providing an opportunity to pursue a long sought after goal — national rejuvenation, seizing what is seen as China’s rightful position as a global superpower.
No one expects this to be easy, or to go unopposed. “As China enters a crucial stage of its transformation from a major country to a powerful one,” Qiushi noted, “it is encountering growing pressure and obstruction on the path ahead.”
“The world is currently witnessing unprecedented changes as major shifts occur in the international strategic landscape, the global governance system, the global geopolitical landscape, and the competition among countries over national strength,” the journal said.
These shifts have all been supercharged by the pandemic. The US is struggling to cope with its own domestic response to the virus, and its military is no exception, with at least one aircraft carrier left temporarily out of action due to infections on board.
The US navy has long been the biggest block on China’s attempts to dominate the South China Sea — almost all of which is claimed by Beijing as part of its territory, despite numerous other claimants whose borders are far closer to the disputed waters.
This is by no means the first time Beijing has flexed its muscles in the South China Sea, or engaged in border disputes with India. But with political leaders in Washington and New Delhi comparatively distracted with domestic matters related to the pandemic, Beijing has an opportunity to shore up gains in both regions that will be hard to reverse once the pandemic is over.
National security concerns
Nowhere has the status quo been shifted more radically in recent days than in Hong Kong.
Last week, Beijing announced plans to introduce a draconian new national security law for the semi-autonomous Chinese city that could threaten many of its civil liberties and political freedoms.
The move comes in the wake of months of anti-government unrest last year and as protests were beginning to resume following a break forced by the coronavirus crisis. Beijing claimed the law was necessary to shore up its national security in the city, and blamed “foreign forces” for promoting separatism and violence in Hong Kong.
China’s plans have been met with widespread outrage in Hong Kong and elsewhere, particularly as the new law will be imposed without consulting the city’s legislature, though Beijing-backed local government leaders have thrown their support behind the plan.
Washington has threatened to revoke Hong Kong’s special trading relationship and potentially even impose sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials, and more than 200 lawmakers from two-dozen countries have signed an open letter condemning the move.
It dismissed threats of sanctions or economic pressure as a bluff, adding that “as the US is entangled in the Covid-19 epidemic, its actual ability to intervene externally is weakening.”
Washington’s ability, indeed that of the entire international community, to intervene in Hong Kong is extremely limited. The city’s fate was essentially sealed in 1984, when the British agreed to hand over control to China on the promise that it would preserve Hong Kong’s freedoms — but without any way of truly holding Beijing to its word.
Hong Kong was one of the territories lost by China during the so-called “century of humiliation,” the reversal of which is the key goal of the national rejuvenation plan. Only one territory remains outside Beijing’s control: Taiwan.
The Communist Party has never controlled Taiwan, which was seized by the defeated Nationalist government following the end of the Chinese civil war, and has since developed into a thriving democracy of 22-million just off China’s coast.
As tensions increase with Beijing, Washington has also thrown its support more vocally behind its longstanding ally, and other parts of the international community that typically have avoided the issue of Taiwan for fear of offending China have also spoken out.
Taiwan is the only area where the status quo is potentially shifting against China, and also, worryingly, the only one where gradual steps are less likely to pay off — if Beijing even has the patience to try them.
China had built up closer economic ties with the island under Tsai’s predecessor, but its growing influence led to the concerted backlash that brought her to power. Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” principle was once seen as a potential model for Taiwan’s future unification with China, but since outbreak of protests last year all mainstream parties on the island have rejected it, and even Beijing seems to have admitted its unworkability with the national security law.
Some jingoistic voices in China have urged Beijing to take the opportunity presented by the coronavirus pandemic to invade Taiwan, and while most analysts agree this is very unlikely — there is new uncertainty over Taiwan’s future, even as it enjoys domestic success and international acclaim.
In the same speech announcing the Hong Kong law ahead of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, a spokesman for the rubberstamp parliament spoke of the desire for unification with Taiwan. That has been a longstanding, oft-repeated goal, but one key word used in previous years was missing this time around: “peaceful.”