China’s continued demand for respect from the international community using coercive tactics not only works against that objective but also shows that Beijing is not ready to be a global leader.
The current global pandemic has allowed China to push its aggressive behaviour in places such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Ladakh and Taiwan. Rather than trying to amend that narrative in the face of growing international opposition to it, Beijing has increased its diplomatic coercion in countries, such as Australia, Canada, Vietnam and elsewhere in mainland South-East Asia. Also, Beijing seeks to rewrite the definition of basic human freedom, while actively engaging countries around the world in order to reduce the negativity surrounding it due to the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to further push its nationalistic narrative. China remains belligerent in its foreign policies, especially when it comes to democratic norms and territorial integrity. Its actions, some of which will be examined here, raise the question as to whether China is a force for good in the international system or if it seeks to merely dominate and establish in its image.
The first method Beijing uses to control its negative image is to undermine the influence of other countries in the international system while alleviating its standing in the global order. In doing so, Beijing’s political definition will supposedly reshape global institutions, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. For instance, China responded to a suggestion by Australia that an international body be established to investigate the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic by imposing sanctions on various Australian goods, which has led to an ongoing diplomatic spat. Meanwhile, the recent scandal surrounding 2 Squadron, Special Air Service Regiment has provided an opportunity for Chinese diplomat, Zhao Lijian, to disparage the event, which has further diminished the relationship.
Although some criticisms were directed at Canberra as it investigates itself, Beijing was exempted by the United Nations on substantive cases of human rights abuses towards the Uyghurs in its Xinjiang province. Furthermore, the so-called security law in Hong Kong has raised questions as to its legality because it amounts to a breach of the “one country, two systems” policy and allows for any criticism directed at Beijing to be termed “dissident” actions. Furthermore, the law transgresses the agreement that China signed with the UK regarding Hong Kong that stipulates how the city is to be governed until 2047. China has also used fishing militias and strong-arm tactics to coerce South-East Asian states to capitulate on fishing rights in the South China Sea, which resulted in the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat in April this year. Despite its continued bleating about its own sovereignty, Beijing continues to attack countries that it sees as being “unfavourable” towards it, or, at the very least, forces them into self-censorship when it comes to criticism of China.
The second method is the so-called “salami slicing”. After employing that strategy in the South China Sea and in the absence of US leadership, Beijing now employs the same tactic on the borders to its south-west. While refusing to cease building islands in the South China Sea, a recently completed village near Bhutan shows that Beijing is utilising the opportunity provided by a weakened and distracted global order as a means to extend its territory. The village of Pangda, which was built in the vicinity of 2017’s Doklam stand-off, is one example of the protracted diplomatic pressure that Beijing has placed on Thimphu since 1984. China has for a long time sought to be able to dominate the Siliguri Corridor, the “chicken’s neck” that joins India’s north-eastern states to the rest of the country, so that, in the event of a conflict with India, China’s control of that narrow stretch of land could potentially prevent New Delhi from accessing those states. The Pangda village was built approximately 2.5 kilometres inside the Bhutanese border and has munitions storage facilities and military bunkers.
The shifting perception of Beijing in Thimphu is understandable. The increased tension between India and China has forced smaller countries in the region to have to choose sides. For instance, Bhutan has been a steadfast ally of India and it had long rejected various territorial claims by China that formerly only included its central (Jakarlung) and western (Pasamlung) regions. But, following Beijing’s assertion that the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, which is situated in eastern Bhutan close to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, is also part of Chinese territory, as well as the suggestion made by a former Lieutenant-General of the Indian Army, Prakash Katoch, that Bhutan sell the Doklam Plateau to India, Thimphu was presumably compelled to concede to the construction of the village. Bhutanese Prime Minister, Dr Lotay Tshering denied such construction even existed, although Bhutan has steadily lost territory to China since 2010.
The Nepalese Government has also denied allegations of land annexation by China in its Humla district earlier this year. The official spokesperson for the Nepalese foreign ministry reported that ‘the buildings were not constructed within Nepali territory’, but the recent anti-China protests in front of the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu suggest otherwise.
Overall, despite China’s effort to push for greater global respect, its foreign policies have worked against that objective. Beijing might be able to influence countries to accept its role in the global order but, with such conduct, it remains a perceived threat to established global norms.