China's feverish overreach wasted an opportunity offered by Covid-19


When the world reeled from the initial impact of Covid-19 early this year, many strategists thought that the pandemic-induced shock provided China with a prime opportunity to advance its strategic ambitions in Asia and reshape the global order.

But it has not quite worked out that way, and it's not simply because the United States is standing in its way. On the contrary, America has not shown leadership in the coronavirus crisis. Not only is America struggling with Covid-19 on home ground, but it is withdrawing funding and support for the World Health Organisation - in the midst of a global pandemic no less. Such decisions chip away at America's standing among allies and partners. What's more, the ructions from the US domestic travails will continue and likely intensify as it heads into the Nov 3 presidential election.

So why has China not benefited more from its chief rival's mistakes and shortcomings? Simply because China has overreached and is risking more damage than it can potentially handle.

The recent deadly clash with Indian troops at the Ladakh border is probably the most dangerous demonstration of that. The brutal hand-to-hand combat that left at least 20 soldiers dead and many more casualties on both sides points to the risks for China in not being able to fully control the outcome of its actions - in this case, the attempt to assert its claims over contested borders.

The Galwan Valley clash has ended up stoking anti-Chinese sentiments in India and severely damaging previous efforts by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at forging better ties with Beijing. While Mr Modi has been restrained in his response so far - for which he is being accused of appeasement by fellow Indian nationalists - the border brawl will serve to push India closer towards the US and to animate the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue - a loose grouping of democracies (Japan, the US, Australia and India) that have little in common other than concerns over China's rise; this is something that Beijing has been apprehensive about.

In its dealings with neighbours with contested territories, China has for many years shown mastery in operating just below the "red line", drawing out dialogues while pushing boundaries but just below the threshold of open conflict. The South China Sea is a prime showcase of how this works.

While talks on a code of conduct with Asean drag on and medical diplomacy has flourished, China's coast guard continues to harass fishing boats and oil exploratory vessels of South-east Asian claimant states. Now, even the traditional playbook of "divide and rule", in which such provocative actions that usually target one claimant at a time to prevent solidarity among Asean members, seems to have been set aside. In recent months, spats have broken out with Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Even Indonesia, which is not a party to disputed territories with China, has publicly opposed Beijing's South China Sea claims. On June 4, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said at a press conference that Jakarta objected to China's "so-called nine-dash line" and "so-called historic rights". The Philippines has also backtracked from a decision to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, citing obliquely "political and other developments in the region".

If recently revived speculation about China's plans to impose the air identification zone over the South China Sea comes to pass, it will likely invite further consolidated pushback from otherwise often intimidated neighbours.

Beyond South-east Asia, temperatures are also rising over the presence of Chinese vessels for a record two months near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. China also claims ownership of the islands, which it calls Diaoyu. A spate of menacing probes by China's warplanes directed at Taiwan, most recently on June 22, adds to the tensions over North-east Asia.

Meanwhile, Beijing's relations with Australia have also nose-dived. Canberra's push for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus has led to Chinese threats of economic retaliation, with beef, barley and Chinese university students among the levers used.

What the recent development shows is that Beijing seems to be picking too many fights at the same time, and it is inviting criticism even from those who have previously remained silent.

The US-China great power competition predates the Covid-19 crisis. What the pandemic has done is to aggravate pre-existing domestic vulnerabilities in both countries and intensify their responses against each other. Their actions so far have not been assuring. Too much is left to chance, and that can be very dangerous.

What accounts for Beijing's current muscular assertion of its rights on multiple fronts?

There could be any number of possible explanations: that it is the result of feverish miscalculation and over-estimation of its own strength, or a desperate attempt to divert domestic pressure from the many internal issues to external foes. Or perhaps these flare-ups are a cover for whatever unstated goal Beijing is seeking to pursue at the moment.

Whatever the origins, the resulting friction with other countries suggests that China's execution of those goals is doing more harm than good. It is risking undoing what it has already achieved and further minimising chances of accomplishing what it aspires to achieve.

The current great power contest is unfortunately not a competition in which the better player wins, but rather the one who scores fewer own goals. Winston Churchill once said: "Never waste a good crisis." Xi Jinping obviously wasn't listening.

  • Dr Huong Le Thu is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2020, with the headline China's feverish overreach wasted an opportunity offered by Covid-19. Subscribe