China is using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity for a policy of expansion not only along the Indo-Chinese border, but also in the South China Sea, the Baltic Sea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
While the world has been grappling with the deadliest pandemic in over a century, with up to 197 countries affected, and upwards of 12 million positive cases causing close to 600,000 deaths, China has in the meantime been busy with other things. Originating in Wuhan in December 2019, the deadly Coronavirus quickly spread across the globe. While badly-hit nations attempted to contain the virus, trying at the same time to learn from one another, Beijing continued to do what it does best – encroaching on the territories of other sovereign nations, under what is now termed its ‘salami slicing’ policy.
History teaches us much about the Chinese expansionist mind-set, namely that they usually act after a major crisis or event, such as after the Vietnam War, or following the withdrawal of US forces from the Philippines when they expanded their territory in the South China Sea. And now, we are faced with what happens in a post COVID-19 world.
Shrikanth Kondapalli, Professor of Chinese Studies at the Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University says, “Chinese expansionism was always there. The pandemic has acted as an instrument. In October 2017, this policy was debated and decided upon at the Chinese Communist Party’s meeting of the National Congress, namely that China seeks to be a global power and intends to assume centre stage, thereby becoming a leader for everyone to follow. The Party Congress issued directions and COVID-19 has only benefited Beijing in looking to achieve this goal, because the world has been busy dealing with the pandemic, so China began to fulfil the goals it set in 2017.”
Border incursions at the Indo-China Line of Actual Control (LAC) have become routine, but the Chinese build-up at the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh in March-April 2020 prompted the Indian leadership to take notice. A meeting of senior military commanders on 6 June didn’t help much though. The situation took a turn for the worse on 15 June when Indian and Chinese troops engaged in the deadliest border clash since 1975, with 20 Indian soldiers killed in the bloodshed. Senior military officials from both sides met on 22 June and again on 30 June, with diplomatic channels also working in parallel. Finally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed at Leh near the Indo-China border on 3 July, which was followed by talks between the Indian National Security Advisor and the Chinese Foreign Minister, after which the disengagement of troops began on both sides.
During his surprise visit on 3 July, Prime Minister Modi addressed Indian soldiers stationed at the Indo-China border in Ladakh and said, “The age of expansionism is over. The world has moved on the path of development. The expansionist forces have ruined the world in the last century. But they have either been defeated or forgotten in history.” To this, Beijing responded by saying, “It is groundless to view China as ‘expansionist’, or exaggerate and fabricate its disputes with neighbours.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said, “China and India are in communication with each other through military and diplomatic channels. Neither side should make any move that may complicate the border situation.”
The statement by the Indian External Affairs Ministry said, “the two sides should not allow differences to become disputes. It was necessary to ensure at the earliest opportunity complete disengagement of the troops along the LAC and de-escalation from India-China border areas for full restoration of peace and tranquillity. In this regard, they further agreed that both sides should complete the ongoing disengagement process along the LAC expeditiously. The two sides should also ensure a phased and incremental de-escalation in the India-China border areas. They re-affirmed that both sides should strictly respect and observe the Line of Actual Control and should not take any unilateral action to alter the status quo and work together to avoid any incident in the future that could disturb peace and tranquillity in border areas.”
In addition, and for the first time, India commented on the Hong Kong issue in a statement which noted that New Delhi was keeping “a close watch on recent developments” and that, “We hope the relevant parties will take into account these views and address them properly, seriously and objectively.” New Delhi had previously chosen to remain silent on the issue of Hong Kong during its year-long protests, while China has raised the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status at the UN (at the behest of Pakistan), three times in the past year.
Former Indian Ambassador to Japan Sujan R. Chinoy has said, “The border row between India and China could not have erupted at a worse moment. The world is grappling with a once-in-a-century coronavirus pandemic and a global recession that promises to leave no one unscathed. China, which is increasingly censured for obfuscating the origins of the pandemic, appears to have chosen bellicosity, sacrificing all norms of responsible international conduct, as is evident in its aggressive stand on Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.”
On the geopolitical chess board, New Delhi made one more move in late June. The Indian Government carried out a digital strike on China by banning 59 Chinese apps, which are popularly used by millions of Indians, and which according to experts could cause a revenue loss of up to US$8Bn to China..
Brahma Chellaney, one of India’s leading strategic thinkers, writes, “China’s strategy after its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam has been to win without fighting. Deception, concealment and surprise have driven China’s repeated use of force — from seizing the Johnson Reef in 1988 and the Mischief Reef in 1995, to occupying the Scarborough Shoal in 2012, and now vantage locations in Ladakh. It has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a shot or incurring any international costs.”
In addition to handling the global COVID-19 narrative regarding the pandemic’s origins, and the fact that it has also been labelled the ‘Wuhan virus’, the Chinese Communist Party has also been nibbling away at territory in its neighbourhood. Beijing has been notorious in its neighbourhood right from the beginning and the pandemic has provided Beijing with cover and an opening to carry out its expansionist pursuits.
Let us take a look at how China has been behaving with neighbouring countries since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Two US Navy aircraft carriers – the USS NIMITZ and USS RONALD REAGAN – were deployed to the South China Sea from May 2020 and were seen conducting exercises and dual-carrier operations to support a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Beijing was reportedly annoyed and warned Washington against any misadventure. Global trade worth an estimated US$3.37Tr passes through the South China Sea annually, which accounts for a third of global maritime trade. Approximately 39.5% of China’s total trade and 80% of its energy imports pass through the South China Sea.
In May 2020, Tokyo protested after a Chinese Coast Guard vessel harassed a Japanese fishing boat near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Japan is trying to promote maritime security cooperation with a number of like-minded neighbouring countries, in a bid to curtail China’s maritime footprint. The Japan-US alliance is vital for maritime peace in the region. Japan is also arming its helicopter carrier-JS IZUMO with F-35B LIGHTNING-II stealth fighter jets, for future deployments.
In June 2020, a Chinese survey ship was seen crossing into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), prompting an objection from Vietnam. Vietnam and China have mostly been locked in a spat over the South China Sea. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry has resented Beijing’s laying of undersea telecommunication cables at the disputed Paracel Islands.
Furthermore, in April 2020, China sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands.
Usually, China and Indonesia have no disputes between them. Recently though, China forced Indonesia into accepting its nine-dash line claim, triggering a protest from Jakarta in the form of a letter to the UN Secretary General complaining that this was in violation of international law, including UNCLOS 1982. The nine-dash line is a Chinese claim in the South China Sea which includes almost the entire area.
In 2019, China was reportedly targeting drilling operations and harassing the operatives of Malaysian oil exploration ships carrying out these drills; these ships are provided with security by Malaysian Navy and Coast Guard ships within Malaysia’s EEZ.
At the World Health Assembly, Australia was one of the first countries to take the lead demanding an independent, impartial, comprehensive investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, a move which was supported by 120 countries, including India. Soon after, China announced a ban on beef imports from Australia. This was followed by a cyber-attack against Australia allegedly launched by China which Beijing subsequently denied.
China has often staked claim over the independent island nation of Taiwan, which does not have a seat in the World Health Organization (WHO). Taiwan claims to have sent an email to the WHO on 31 December 2019 warning about a pneumonia-like disease emerging from Wuhan, which was then apparently brushed under the carpet by the WHO. Later, Taiwan demanded to be a part of the World Health Assembly, a move blocked by Beijing. These bold moves by Taiwan were not received kindly by China and according to Taipei, Beijing sent bombers into Taiwanese airspace six times in a week and eight times in a month. China dislikes other countries’ support for Taipei and has often been vocal about its displeasure, as witnessed during the recent four “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPS) carried out by the US Navy in the South China Sea near Taiwan.
China passed a new Security Law in Hong Kong on 30 June 2020, placing Hong Kong under Chinese jurisdiction. Under the new law, Beijing will establish a security agency office in Hong Kong with its own personnel. Stricter rules and punishments have drawn flak from the global community, especially from the expatriates living there. The largest community are Canadians, which number approximately 200,000, followed by 50,000 British and 36,000 Indians. The UK and Australian governments have offered citizenship to Hong Kong nationals which has further angered Beijing.
UK, France, Canada
Coercive diplomacy was exerted by China’s ambassadors to the UK, France and Canada, when these nations rejected Huawei’s 5G technology trials in their respective countries.
According to reports, China has allegedly claimed the Russian Vladivostok region as Chinese territory and responded to a Russian video by referring to Vladivostok as Haishenwai – its original name when part of the Qing dynasty’s Manchurian homeland, until it was annexed by Russia in 1860 after China’s defeat by the British and French in the Second Opium War.
Usually a peaceful hill nation, Bhutan has also been caught in the crosshairs of China’s neighbourhood expansionism and its dirty ‘salami slicing’ policy after Beijing recently staked a territorial claim over the Bhutanese Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. A border dispute already exists between Bhutan and China, as the borders have not been clearly demarcated and both countries have had 24 rounds of ministerial level boundary talks.
China and Nepal have had disputes over the world’s highest mountain peak, Mount Everest, located in Nepal, but more recently China has again staked claim to the 8,848 metre peak.
Singapore, mostly seen as a peaceful country, ran into trouble with Beijing some years ago when nine of its infantry carrier vehicles were seized by Hong Kong customs while returning from Taiwan after a training exercise between Taiwan and Singapore. China warned Singapore about adhering to its ‘One-China’ policy and to avoid having any military relations with Taiwan.
After a Facebook location tag allegedly described the Philippines as a “Province of China”, angry Phillipine Senators, including Risa Hontiveros, took to social media to reply, stating that, “Philippines was not a province of China: Never were and never will be!” Even the Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary, Teddy Locsin reacted.
Retired Indian Army Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia says, “China has exploited the pandemic in that when most nations were busy combating COVID-19, China saw this as an opportunity and practiced its tried and tested strategy of military coercion. An expansionist China demonstrated a militarily aggressive behaviour not only along the India-China border, but also in the South China Sea, the East Sea, in Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and even with Bhutan, laying claims to parts of Eastern Bhutan which was a settled issue.”
Suman Sharma is a Delhi-based journalist covering foreign policy and defence. Previously, she was an instructor at the Indian Military Academy.