The southern and eastern parts of China are in distress, raising fears of conflict caused by miscalculation or even by design.
The potential flashpoints are familiar: Taiwan; the disputed islands of the South China and East China Seas; and the Himalayan border of India. What is unusual is that tensions have risen in unison and some commentators have warned that there are risks of military outbreaks potentially involving the United States.
“Since China and the United States are nuclear powers, the risk of a direct war between the two countries is still very low, but small-scale military conflicts do occur,” said Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University. , one of China’s most influential academics.
“There is a qualitative difference in scale between direct war and military conflict,” Yan said via email. “The central conflict between China and the United States is power competition and the smaller the power gap between the two, the more intense the competition will be.”
But why is Beijing’s assertiveness intensifying on its periphery even as its relationship with the United States turns from strategic competition to outright hostility?
Analysts attribute the harshest to a confluence of domestic insecurity after the crackdown in areas such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang, high-powered ambitions fueled by Xi Jinping’s leadership, and a touch of opportunism offered by the coronavirus pandemic.
Taiwan “sacred” is a magnet for tensions
China conducted military exercises near Taiwan “to safeguard national sovereignty” in August as US Secretary of Health Alex Azar became top Washington official to visit the country since 1979.
Beijing was furious. “Recently, some major countries are continually taking negative steps regarding the Taiwan issue and sending false signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces, seriously threatening peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” the official said. Colonel Zhang Chunhui of the People’s Liberation Army.
A person advising Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, said that Xi’s grand ambitions for power, coupled with the purges within the Communist Party, have shaken Beijing’s established decision-making processes.
“This has created a very messy situation and we are concerned that Xi Jinping is not stable,” the person said. “When this happens, the risk of conflict increases rapidly.”
Alexander Huang, a professor at the Institute of Strategic Studies at Tamkang University, said internal power struggles have played a role in other Chinese military conflicts.
He cited Mao Zedong’s concerns that he might not be able to control a regional party leader in northeast China as one of the factors in the former leader’s decision to enter. the Korean War in 1950.
“Nowadays, we are again seeing a link between internal and international factors, but with a reversed dynamic: China is feeling risks and pressure on many fronts outside, and Xi could be under internal pressure. it is considered not to handle any of these problems well. Said Professor Huang.
Assertiveness is enhanced by the capabilities and reach of the PLA. After more than two decades of double-digit annual increases in defense spending, the Chinese military has acquired the biggest navy, a rapidly growing number of military aircraft and an arsenal of intermediate-range missiles capable of hitting US targets throughout the region.
China’s goal of strengthening its global power has been repeatedly telegraphed by Xi. In 2017, he summed up the country’s progress since the 1949 revolution with the phrase: “China has risen, got richer, got strong and. . . walks to the front of the stage. ”
This was based on the 2013 decision to drop the mantra of “keeping a low profile” that had served Beijing as a guiding philosophy in international affairs since the late 1970s. In his place, Xi unveiled a strategy of “fenfa youweiOr “strive for success”.
The strong man leader, who abolished the presidential election term limits, also articulated what Matthew Johnson, a political consultant, called a “total security paradigm”.
In a 2014 speech to inaugurate the Chinese National Security Commission, a government body, Xi defined security policy as encompassing almost all areas of life. The NSC would integrate “territorial security, military security, economic security, cultural security, social security, technological security, information security, ecological security, resource security and nuclear security”, he said. he declared.
Beijing is also fighting the perceived instability at home. Re-education camps in Xinjiang which are said to house around 1 million people from China’s Muslim ethnic groups are a case in point.
“China’s foreign policy increasingly reflects the attempt to seek regime security. . . at home, ”said Sheena Greitens of the University of Texas at Austin. “The CCP treats things as serious threats that could have been tolerated before.”
Show of strength in the Himalayas
Gautam Bambawale, former Indian ambassador to China, said a fight against the country Himalayan border along with China in June which killed 21 Indian soldiers, followed the PLA’s deployment of tens of thousands of troops and heavy equipment to the region.
“It was not an accidental meeting,” he said. “It’s a well thought out and premeditated plan from the PLA.”
“What they also signal at a strategic level is that China has risen and you have to accept that China is the preeminent power in Asia, and you better understand your place in this hierarchy,” Mr. Bambawale. “They say the 21st century is not an Asian century. It is simply and uniquely a Chinese century. “
Yun Sun, of the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank, said Beijing viewed building infrastructure in India in the Galwan Valley as a “serious offense” that demanded a firm response.
“From the Chinese perspective, if they don’t punish harshly enough, it’s going to leave a mentality of possibility,” she said. “The punishment must be seriously understood and the lessons learned.”
The improvement in assertiveness is also visible around the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, which are disputed by Japan and China. A defense white paper released by Japan in July said Beijing was pressing “relentlessly” on its claims to the islands by increasing maritime activities that sought to change the “status quo.”
Saber rattle in the South China Sea
The South China Sea, in which China’s territorial claims overlap with those of several Southeast Asian countries, is also a hotbed of tension between the United States and China. Foreign ministers of Asean, the group of 10 Southeast Asian countries, issued a statement this month calling for restraint and non-militarization at sea.
Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, said last week that Washington stands alongside “our ASEAN partners as we insist on the rule of law and respect for sovereignty in the South China Sea, where Beijing has waged aggressive campaigns of coercion and environmental devastation. “
Additional reporting by Sherry Fei Ju in Beijing