China's growing belligerence
China has been throwing its weight around from Hong Kong to India. Why the new aggression? Here's everything you need to know:
What is China doing?
In the past few months, Beijing has exploited the U.S.'s and the world's preoccupation with the coronavirus pandemic to assert China's hegemony throughout Asia. It has threatened or sunk boats from Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and Malaysia, and flown fighter jets into Taiwanese airspace eight times. It instigated a skirmish with India in the Himalayas that killed dozens, the worst such fighting along the disputed border in decades. "It's a quite deliberate Chinese strategy to try to maximize what they perceive as being a moment of distraction," said Peter Jennings of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Beijing has also been emboldened by Trump's "America First" isolationism, Jennings said. In passing a draconian security law for Hong Kong, Beijing shredded all pretense that it would keep its pledge to respect the former British colony's "one country, two systems" arrangement, or Hong Kongers' right to free speech. Its domestic oppression of its mostly Muslim Uighur minority became more gruesome with the recent revelation of a campaign to prevent Uighur births through forced birth control and abortion.
How is China's military involved?
Chinese Coast Guard vessels have been muscling into other countries' territorial waters all over the South China Sea, a body of water China claims as its sole domain even though nine other countries also border it. In April, the Chinese rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat, harassed Malaysian and Philippine ships, and declared that lands long claimed by the Philippines — including the Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal, and Fiery Cross Reef — were now Chinese districts. In June, it menaced Taiwan with bombers and fighter jets in Taiwanese airspace, a rare occurrence before this year. But the military isn't China's only tool: It is also exerting its economic might and its soft power.
How is Beijing doing that?
When Australia asked for an international investigation into how the coronavirus spread from Wuhan to the world, China's wrath was swift. It hit Australia with a shocking 80 percent tariff on barley and a ban on beef imports, and launched a huge cyberattack on all levels of Australian government. Meanwhile, conservative lawmakers in Australia and the U.S. have raised concerns about the growing penetration of the United Front, an arm of the Chinese government that sponsors Chinese cultural and educational groups all over the world. In Canada, for example, the Front mobilized Chinese groups to buy up masks and gloves in the early days of the pandemic and send them to China. Chinese President Xi Jinping calls the Front one of China's three "magic weapons," along with the Communist Party and armed struggle.
What is the global response?
Other countries are enacting sanctions and reorienting their military strategies to confront the Chinese threat. The Philippines, which under President Rodrigo Duterte had been openly anti-American and deferential to China, has just changed course, deciding not to go through with a planned withdrawal from a military treaty with the U.S. Australia unveiled new military spending of $186 billion over the next 10 years, with a focus on deterring China itself rather than supporting U.S. missions. Britain is following suit. "We need to work out how we will deal with a China that economically, technically, and militarily is going to surpass the U.S. within our lifetimes," said Tobias Ellwood, head of Parliament's defense committee.
What has the U.S. done?
President Trump has reversed his early praise of Xi on the coronavirus response, now blaming China for "worldwide killing." In May, his administration canceled visas for Chinese grad students with links to the Communist Party. More recently, the Pentagon sent three aircraft carriers to the region and conducted huge exercises in the South China Sea involving dozens of ships and hundreds of warplanes. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has criticized Beijing for "aggressive expansionism." Congress passed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, which sanctions specific Chinese officials responsible for "gross human rights violations," and it is planning to spend an additional $7 billion over two years to boost Pacific forces.
Will that deter China?
No. International criticism of China over the pandemic and Chinese aggression has only produced more swaggering defiance from Beijing, which believes it will soon surpass the U.S. as the world's great superpower. "Xi Jinping's attitude now is that he can't fail," said Taiwanese defense analyst Huang Chung-ting. Xi is also emboldened by what he sees as a vacuum in American leadership. Chinese officials have openly cheered for Trump's re-election, saying that he is not only a weak leader but also, through his incessant tweeting, "easy to read" and therefore "the best choice in an opponent for negotiations." Trump spurns alliances, so he won't lead an international effort to rein in Beijing, and he is openly indifferent to human rights abuses. Beijing knows, Chinese specialist Minxin Pei told The Atlantic, that "Trump can be persuaded if the price is right."
Steamrolling Hong Kong
The national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in late June effectively destroys freedom of expression and the rule of law in the territory. It threatens with life in jail those who engage in secession, subversion, and "collusion with foreign forces" — an offense so vague that it could include texting a foreigner or working with any international organization. Those charged with such crimes could be sent for trial to mainland China, where the conviction rate is 99.9 percent. Already, hundreds of protesters have been arrested under the law. Taiwan, which broke away from Communist China in 1949 but which China still claims, fears a military invasion. The Taiwanese are alarmed by the fact that the new security law asserts "universal jurisdiction," meaning anyone in any country can theoretically be prosecuted for criticizing Beijing. China has already accused Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen of a "separatist plot" for speaking at a democracy forum. "Our sense of fear has increased," said Taiwanese lawmaker Chen Po-wei. "Because of China's nature, there is a high possibility of conflict."
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.