Same as It Ever Was: China’s Pandemic Opportunism on Its Periphery
While Washington and Beijing’s overheated rhetoric and mutual recriminations amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic are grabbing headlines, equally important is what has been playing out across China’s eastern and southern peripheries over the past several weeks. At a moment when the Chinese Communist Party has been touting the generosity of its approach to COVID-19, there has been a marked increase in the number of incidents between China and its neighbors. Beijing has used its naval and paramilitary forces as well as its increasingly sophisticated information operations to ratchet up tensions, probe responses, and see how much it can get away with.
This raises the question of what exactly China is up to. Has Beijing truly embraced a new approach of cooperation with its neighbors? Is it trying to take advantage of the COVID-19 mess to assert its interests more aggressively? Or is this simply an extension — albeit an opportunistic one — of its pre-pandemic strategy?
The novel coronavirus pandemic has not curtailed geopolitics — in fact, it seems to be intensifying preexisting tensions. Understanding if and how China’s foreign policy has shifted is critical for assessing what is happening along China’s periphery and what Beijing might do next. Answering these questions is necessary for the United States and its allies to fashion a proper response. This, in turn, demands understanding what Beijing was doing before the crisis and thinking through what might actually signal a significant shift toward a more confrontational foreign policy.
How Did I Get Here? China’s Latest Moves
Chinese ships and aircraft have been involved in a spate of recent incidents across China’s maritime periphery. While there have been no fatalities, lives were certainly put at risk. Considering these incidents have involved two of China’s primary regional rivals — Japan and Vietnam — as well as Taiwan, the possibility that Beijing may see the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to press an advantage during a time of geopolitical distraction and uncertainty should be considered.
In mid-March, a group of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait — an unofficial demarcation line between Taiwan and China — in an exercise intended to intimidate Taiwan by demonstrating China’s ability to conduct operations at night while also testing Taiwan’s ability to react. While PLA ships and aircraft have been operating within the vicinity of Taiwan for several years, the pace and assertiveness of these activities have noticeably increased in recent years: The latest incident was the fourth time in two months that PLA aircraft forced Taiwan’s air force to scramble and intercept. Considering the impending second inauguration of Taiwan’s leader, President Tsai Ing-wen, as well as dwindling levels of support in Taiwan for Beijing’s “One Country, Two Systems” formulation, these exercises are likely to grow even more common and assertive.
In late March in the East China Sea, a Chinese fishing vessel collided with a Japanese destroyer. The collision ripped a hole in the destroyer, but the ship was able to move on its own, and its crew suffered no casualties. Beijing announced that one Chinese fisherman had been hurt and blamed the Japanese vessel for the incident, calling for Japan’s cooperation to prevent future incidents. It is unclear if the Chinese vessel was a part of China’s “maritime militia,” described by the U.S. Department of Defense as “an armed reserve force of civilians available for mobilization” that plays a “major role in coercive activities to achieve China’s political goals without fighting.”
The South China Sea has also seen several recent incidents involving Chinese vessels. In early March, a Vietnamese fishing vessel was moored near a small island in the Paracel archipelago — islands claimed by both Vietnam and China, among others — when a Chinese vessel chased it and fired a water cannon, causing the boat to sink after hitting some rocks. The crew was rescued by another Vietnamese fishing boat, with Hanoi claiming that the fishing boat was rammed by the Chinese vessel. The U.S. State Department issued a statement in early April expressing its serious concerns about the incident and calling on China “to remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic, and to stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.” The State Department also noted that since the outbreak of the pandemic, “Beijing has also announced new ‘research stations’ on military bases it built on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, and landed special military aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef.” Most recently, a Chinese coast guard (CCG) ship — one of several Chinese ships that harassed a Philippine commercial vessel in September 2019 — was seen patrolling near the Scarborough Shoal, representing one of many CCG ships that have been patrolling nearly all of the disputed areas between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea.
Are these incidents merely a coincidence? Are they a sign that Beijing is distracted by COVID-19 and the resulting historic economic slowdown, and aggressive local commanders are pushing the envelope of their own accord? Or is this merely the result of China fielding more ships and more aircraft, leading to a predictable increase in incidents and exercises? While these explanations are all plausible, a more likely driver of China’s actions is, in fact, continuity.
These incidents are not unprecedented and likely do not indicate a new, post-pandemic Chinese strategy. Rather, these incidents are consistent with a Chinese approach to foreign affairs under CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s leadership that even before the outbreak of COVID-19 demonstrated flexibility, assertiveness, and a singular desire to exploit opportunities of external weakness and distraction in order to advance China’s interests.
For more than a decade, Chinese leaders have come to see their external security environment as generally favorable, representing a “strategic window of opportunity” in which China could achieve its primary objective of national revitalization through economic and social development, military modernization, and the expansion of its regional and global influence. Since the 2008 to 2009 global financial crisis, Beijing has perceived an opportunity to expand its geopolitical power relative to the United States yet does not seek an explicit conflict with the United States or its allies.
As a result, Beijing has intensified its use of “gray zone” tactics that seek to gradually advance Chinese interests using ambiguity and tactics that are tailored to not provoke a military retaliation. These activities also serve as “probing behavior” that tests how far China can go before encountering determined resistance. In recent years, Beijing has used this approach to increase pressure on Japan in the East China Sea and advance Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea against the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Throughout, Beijing’s approach to regional geopolitics has been adaptive to specific conditions, flexible to broader strategic trends, and opportunistic to perceptions of weakness or distraction in its adversaries. Chinese actions are not the reckless gambles they may initially appear to be. Rather, they are premeditated probes seeking to identify weakness and opportunity. Chinese pressure is carefully calibrated to fit, but not necessarily to exceed, a given situation.
This approach reflects a maxim of Vladimir Lenin, whom the Chinese Communist Party continues to revere to this day: “Probe with a bayonet: if you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.” In multiple instances, Beijing has continued to push when it perceives that its actions are unlikely to cause a significant response. But when Chinese assertiveness has been met with resolute counterpressure, Beijing’s response has not been predictably escalatory.
Beijing has demonstrated flexibility when confronted with determined opposition. Examples include Japan’s response to China’s rollout of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea in 2013 and President Obama’s reported drawing of a red line around Scarborough Shoal to Xi Jinping in March 2016. Moreover, India’s response to Chinese activities in Doklam did not lead to war.
China’s recent actions in the Taiwan Strait, East China Sea, and South China Sea demonstrate a continuation of this flexible, opportunistic approach. With the United States faltering in its domestic response and failing to lead a unified international response and Southeast Asia besieged by COVID-19, there is certainly room for Beijing to press its advantage and seek opportunities to assert its own interests. Further, growing concerns that the U.S. military may face readiness issues with multiple naval assets are likely to affirm Beijing’s perceptions that the situation is conducive to more opportunism. Indeed, the English-language version of the PLA’s official website printed a commentary claiming, “The outbreak of COVID-19 has significantly lowered the US Navy’s warship deployment capability in the Asia-Pacific region.” And a separate article claimed that no servicemembers had been infected with COVID-19 and that the pandemic had “improved the combat readiness of the Chinese military instead.”
China’s post-pandemic actions strongly suggest that Beijing seeks to demonstrate to the world that the PLA has not been affected by the coronavirus (in all likelihood it has). That message is meant to underscore that this is not the time to attempt to take advantage of China’s focus on suppressing the epidemic, reviving its economy, and sustaining domestic political stability. At the same time, Beijing is likely using these incidents to probe its adversaries for indications of weakness and distraction, seeking opportunities to shift the status quo in China’s favor. While the pandemic may be the cause of such behavior, it is not a new strategy. Rather, it is a reflection of the opportunism and assertiveness that have been a hallmark of China’s pre-pandemic approach. Looking ahead, the United States and the rest of the Indo-Pacific should expect continued opportunism from China.
Burning Down the House: Watch Points for Escalation
To say that China is merely pursuing its long-held opportunistic strategy on its periphery is not to say that additional escalation is unlikely. Depending on what Beijing assesses to be the level of weakness among regional states and distraction in Washington, it may determine that now is precisely the time to push its ambitions in the region to the furthest extent possible.
There are a variety of watch points that analysts and policymakers should look for to ascertain whether China’s strategy, particularly in the South China Sea, has entered a new and escalatory phase.
Decisive Attempt to Change Status Quo
Clearly, the most significant thing China could do to take advantage of the chaos wrought by the novel coronavirus would be to take decisive actions to try to push a claimant off one of the features where it has de facto military or administrative control. Such an action need not constitute a major new effort by China but could simply be the logical extension of current efforts. For example, Thitu Island is a feature controlled by the Philippines around which Chinese maritime militia have been patrolling for 16 months. It would be a potential candidate for a full-scale effort by China to stop Philippine movement and resupply with a view to making the Philippine position on the island untenable. Indeed, the only reason that Beijing might not make such a move is that the Philippines’ strategic orientation has been trending toward China for some time, and it may simply not want to get in the way. Another escalatory step that Beijing could consider would be to extend its maritime borders by drawing straight baselines around the Spratly Islands, thereby asserting a legal claim to even more of the waters of the South China Sea. Such a move would heighten Beijing’s legal warfare in the South China Sea and sharply increase tensions with affected claimant states, perhaps most notably Vietnam.
Since China embarked on its wholescale effort at island-making in 2014, it has been steadily adding military infrastructure and assets to the expanded features it has built in the South China Sea. These have included new runways, hangars, and ports housing state-of-the-art fighter aircraft, surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, and radar arrays — all of this despite Xi Jinping’s public commitment not to militarize the South China Sea. While the horse has largely left the barn in terms of China’s militarization, any new introduction of offensive military assets on Chinese features in the South China Sea would be another notable escalation. Possibilities include the introduction of new amphibious warfare capabilities, home-porting Chinese navy or coast guard vessels at newly militarized features, and introducing new hypersonic or anti-submarine warfare systems, each of which would materially increase China’s power-projection capabilities and move it closer to the goal of effective control of the South China Sea.
Enhanced Public Communications
Another indicator to watch is a more assertive public line in both official statements and from state media organs about Chinese historic rights to the area, the South China Sea in general, or particular features. This type of messaging serves as a useful distraction from ongoing pandemic-related domestic turmoil for Beijing and can serve to undermine political will in other claimant states. While not necessarily required — China has made major moves in the South China Sea with little public fanfare — a change in official messaging would be a useful leading indicator of the next stage of its opportunism.
While the foregoing watch points mostly refer to assertive actions against other states opposed to Beijing’s expansive South China Sea claims, China could also use this time to consolidate and expand gains among friendly regional states. The most obvious candidate here is Cambodia with its deepening ties to, and dependence, on Beijing. Despite Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s multiple assurances that it would violate the constitution to allow foreign forces into Cambodia, he could finesse a change in interpretation of the constitution in a variety of ways. Despite concerns over disease, China and Cambodia just wrapped up a two-week joint exercise, and scaling up Beijing’s proto-military installations in the country would be the most straightforward enhancement of China’s power position in the region. Such a move would not implicate any other country’s territorial claims, would be quite challenging for the United States and others to respond to, and would have significant strategic effects on the South China Sea in a number of different ways.
South China Sea Quid Pro Quos
Perhaps the most likely and insidious action China could take would be to link South China Sea sovereignty disputes to health and economic assistance to countries dealing with COVID-19. China has not been shy to date about drawing links between coronavirus assistance and its Belt and Road Initiative projects, and it would not be too much of a stretch to extend that to “coproduction” related to energy deposits or ceding access to certain South China Sea features to China. The Philippines, again, would be a likely target for such efforts, though oil exploration blocks currently held by Vietnam and others would also be a potential focus. Over time, this type of linkage can only be expected to grow. As the U.S. and European economies are hard-hit by the coronavirus-induced economic crisis, the United States can expect Beijing to perceive and seek to exploit a major window of opportunity.
In short, there are many ways that China’s opportunistic strategy can evolve in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, and careful attention to the above set of indicators can help predict the next stage of escalation.
There Has Got to Be a Way: Responding to China’s Opportunism
Chinese assertiveness will not go away. Indeed, considering ongoing tensions across the Taiwan Strait and the steadily increasing numbers of Chinese military, coast guard, and militia assets in the East and South China Seas, the potential for future incidents is likely to increase over time. Still, as these challenges intensify, so will the need for the United States to demonstrate an ability to set an international agenda and lead the rest of the region in a coordinated response to Chinese assertiveness and opportunism. In other words, if the Chinese are going to push, the United States should ensure that it encounters steel.
First, the United States should make it clear that it will not tolerate efforts by any country to take advantage of the ongoing pandemic to revise the status quo. A clear message is required from Washington, echoed by allies and partners across the world, that the world needs stability if it will successfully address this crisis. Yet, in Asia, words should be backed with actions. Any messaging should include supporting efforts to demonstrate the will and ability to oppose Chinese opportunism by continuing a steady pace of operations across the Indo-Pacific and conducting multilateral operations in concert with regional allies and partners that do not expose servicemembers to added risk, such as combined maritime or air patrols.
A key question is how China’s South China Sea neighbors — especially the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia — react to this opportunism. This may represent an opportunity for the United States to strengthen these relationships and empower them to push back against Chinese assertiveness. This will require providing the claimants with the capabilities, infrastructure, and training necessary to monitor their maritime domains and complicate efforts by Beijing to assert its interests without the risk of escalation. Diplomatically, Washington could support efforts by China’s neighbors to negotiate an enforceable, robust code of conduct based on established international laws and norms that is consistent with the Hague Tribunal’s 2016 arbitration decision on the South China Sea.
Economically, the United States has the opportunity to help Taiwan and the countries in Southeast Asia that dispute China’s South China Sea claims to reduce their economic dependence on China by pursuing agreements to expand bilateral and multilateral trade and investment. An aspect of this strategy could include borrowing an initiative from Japan, which recently announced plans to allocate $2 billion in incentives for companies to leave production out of China. Considering the significant flight of manufacturing out of China and toward Taiwan and Southeast Asia that began before the COVID-19 outbreak, this effort could support preexisting market forces.
Ultimately, it is important for the United States and its allies and partners to understand that China has not changed its approach. The opportunism and assertiveness that has been demonstrated in recent months has, in reality, existed for years. Yet, Washington would be deluding itself if it were to trust that China will not take advantage of the current situation. Even as it faces devastating losses from the novel coronavirus, the United States cannot afford to act as if geopolitics and competition have been put on hold. If anything, competition for the future of the Indo-Pacific has intensified, and the United States should lead a response.
Abraham Denmark is director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia.
Charles Edel is a senior fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and previously served on the U.S. Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff.
Siddharth Mohandas is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and previously served as principal deputy director of the U.S. Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that a group of People’s Liberation Army aircraft crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait in mid-May. This was incorrect. The aircraft crossed in mid-March.