In one area after another, China under the leadership of Xi Jinping seems determined to challenge the existing world order. It has put itself on collision courses with most of its major neighbours and with western countries. And there appears to be no end in sight to its aggressiveness in foreign policy.
China has gone out of its way to affirm its supposed rights in the South China Sea. It has built up tiny islets and converted them into naval and military bases. It has directly challenged Vietnam over the exploitation of oil and gas reserves in Vietnam’s territorial waters. It has laid claims to islands that an international tribunal has declared to be the property of the Philippines. It has put pressure on the government of the Philippines to abandon its long-standing security relationship with the United States. It has made extensive use of its coast guard and its fishing fleet to intimidate the ships of neighbouring countries. In other words, China is behaving as a hegemon in the South China Sea.
China has been equally assertive in its relations with India. Last year, China provoked a military confrontation with India in the high Himalayas, in the course of which several dozen soldiers were killed on both sides. It seized yet more territory in the region, thus further embittering the long-standing frontier dispute between the two countries. And China is currently involved in a plan to create some 600 new villages in the region. The villages are to be inhabited by displaced Tibetan herders and Han Chinese immigrants, and their existence will help to bolster Chinese claims to the disputed territories. And China has not abandoned its claim to the whole Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh on the grounds that it was once part of southern Tibet. These Chinese initiatives have led India to develop closer security relations with the United States, Australia and Japan in the formation of the so-called Quad, a quasi alliance intended to forestall further Chinese expansionism.
China has recently upped the ante in its confrontation with the government of Taiwan. During its celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party earlier this month, it vigorously reaffirmed its intention to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland by force of arms, if necessary. And in recent months it has been proactively sending war planes into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone. The number of these sorties, including bombers, have increased significantly of late. In so doing, it is throwing down the gauntlet not only to Taiwan but also the United States, which is still the island’s major security partner.
The COVID-19 pandemic has produced two new sets of collision courses in China’s foreign policy. The Australian government suggested last year that there should be an independent commission created to investigate the origins of the pandemic in Wuhan. The Chinese authorities promptly rejected the idea and said it was indicative of Australia’s hostile attitude towards China. When the Australians did not back down, the Chinese government imposed punitive tariffs on a variety of Australian exports. Those tariffs remain in effect and are having an adverse impact on the Australian economy since China is Australia’s largest trading partner. More recently, the World Health Organization has proposed to send a team to Wuhan to further investigate the outbreak of the pandemic, in the interests of providing lessons to prevent future pandemics. This proposal is strongly supported by the United States for the same reason. The Chinese government has categorically refused to allow such an investigation, thus once again putting it at loggerheads with the WHO and the United States.
In its dealings with Hong Kong, the Chinese government has produced yet another theatre of confrontation with the international community. In introducing a new security law last year and in making drastic changes to the rules governing elections, the Community Party has effectively destroyed democracy in Hong Kong. These moves have prompted outpourings of condemnation in Europe and North America, as have the Chinese authorities’ brutal repression of peaceful demonstrations. Under the security law, dozens of journalists and writers have been arrested and jailed. Within the past three months, Hong Kong’s only remaining independent media organization, the Apple Daily, has been forced to close down as its editors were arrested. Most recently, the publishers of three children’s books have been detained and the books seized on the grounds that they allegorically depicted the denizens of the Communist party in an unfavourable light. In all of this, the Chinese authorities have not only alienated the 7.5 million citizens of Hong Kong but also a wide range of people outside the territory.
But the international reaction to events in Hong Kong is nothing compared to that provoked by the Chinese treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province. As evidence has mounted of mass incarcerations, forced labour and involuntary sterilizations, the outside world has steadily increased its pressure on China to change its ways in Xinjiang. The Canadian House of Commons and the U.S. State Department have declared that what is happening there is a “genocide,” the most serious accusation that can be launched at a foreign government. The United States, the European Union, Great Britain and Canada have imposed sanctions on the Chinese officials responsible for carrying out these atrocities. And a number of human rights organizations have demanded that they be allowed to investigate. But rather than back down in the face of these pressures, the Chinese government has lashed out at its accusers and has imposed retaliatory sanctions on them.
And China seems to have gone out of its way to alienate Canada and the United States. After imposing unjustified embargoes on Canadian agricultural exports, the Chinese authorities engaged in what has come to be called “hostage diplomacy.” On trumped-up espionage charges they arrested two Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and have held them in custody for nearly three years despite the pleas from the international community for their release. In the case of the United States, the Chinese have been guilty of gross thefts of intellectual property and of industrial espionage. Most recently, China has played host to cybercriminals who have launched hacking attacks on American government and corporate sites. It is widely suspected that these hackers belong to organizations affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party.
Whether intentionally or not ,China has set itself on collision courses with most of the major countries of the world. It is viewed with a mixture of fear and wariness by most of its neighbours, including Japan, India and most of the countries of Southeast Asia. On the Asian continent, it has only two real friends: the relatively muscular Pakistan (population 212 million) and the relatively negligible Cambodia (population 16 million). It has a few friends in Africa, but even there there seems to be growing resentment of Chinese economic dominance and exploitation. All of this presents a sharp contrast to the situation of what Crimea sees as its principal competitor on the world scene, the United States. The Americans have friends and allies in the Americas, in Europe, in the Middle East and in the Far East. It can reliably depend on heavyweights such as Germany, France, Great Britain and Japan, and it has relations of trust with regional powers such as Israel, Egypt, South Korea and Australia. China by comparison is ill-served by its relative isolation. Its more assertive and aggressive foreign policy has done it few favours.
Louis A. Delvoie is a retired Canadian diplomat who served abroad as an ambassador and high commissioner.