When you’ve got a house full of sick people you don’t usually go out looking for a fight. But Chinese leader Xi Jinping isn’t most people. Like a high stakes gambler he has rolled the dice – while the Covid-19 epidemic rages – to see what the People’s Republic of China (PRC) can win on the defense front.
PRC muscle flexing during Covid-19 is impressive: China continues sinking Vietnamese fishing vessels. A People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy ship locked its fire control radar onto a Philippine Navy ship. And there are exercises to intimidate and develop specific skills needed to invade Taiwan.
Recently Chinese Premier Li Keqiang left out the usual word “peaceful” when speaking about China’s goal of “reunification” with Taiwan.
Farther afield, a PRC flotilla of maritime militia, Coast Guard and PLA Navy harassed a Malaysian survey ship down at the far southern end of the South China Sea. Chinese fishing vessels also elbowed in on Indonesian fishing grounds near the Natuna islands.
At the same time, PRC-Japan relations are supposedly on an upswing. Yet, Chinese naval incursions in Japanese administered areas of the East China Sea are at record levels. Chinese Coast Guard ships recently chased a Japanese fishing vessel near the Senkaku islands in Japanese waters.
In an underreported case, a Chinese fishing vessel collided with a Japan Marine Special Defense Force (MSDF) destroyer in international waters off the coast of Shanghai. Initial damage reports suggested the Chinese craft rammed the Japanese ship.
Farther west, the PLA is encroaching on three points on India’s land boundaries, digging in and going well beyond the usual jostling on the border.
At the same time, despite the epidemic, China still churns out ships and aircraft while PLA training is going all-out. Military spending will increase 6.6% this year while the Chinese economy contracts. This despite the fact that China purports to have no enemies.
The Chinese may not be keen to shoot just yet, but they have shifted the benchmark for their behavior. So expect to see more Chinese ships and aircraft (and even ground forces) doing more things in more places more often and likely with a chip on their shoulder.
Meanwhile, Chinese diplomatic muscle-flexing worldwide has become equal parts insults and threats. This so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy won’t make friends – and China knows it. But perhaps that’s the point.
The Chinese are playing increasingly rough, and practically daring anyone to do something about it. It’s easy to dismiss all this as acting out. But it might just work to the PRC’s advantage to be seen as the obnoxious, muscular, tattooed guy nobody else in the trailer park wants to take on.
Beijing may indeed find itself in a stronger position, better able than ever to intimidate its neighbors and control more territory. But its intimidation tactics might finally coalesce serious opposition to its efforts to dominate the Asia-Pacific region.
Calling the roll
So is there anyone in the Asia-Pacific who can or, more to the point, will take on the PRC?
Japan? There’s no sign it will do more than it is doing now. Increase defense spending? Not really. Develop its SDF’s joint capabilities? Not really. A joint operational headquarters so US and Japanese forces can operate together? Nope. Buying and talking about developing shiny objects, hypersonic weapons being the latest, without thought of a coherent defense scheme? Yes.
South Korea? President Moon Jae-in probably wouldn’t mind a closer tie-up with China if he thought he could get away with it. But he isn’t ready to jettison the Americans, not least since a large portion of the South Korean population would protest. But the US-South Korea relationship isn’t what it was.
Does the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) exhibit any evidence of a newfound will to resist China, either individually or as a loose coalition of several ASEAN states? Not really. While Vietnam has always been willing to bite back at its centuries-old rival, Singapore hedges more all the time.
Thailand has drifted toward the PRC, owing largely to Barack Obama administration missteps. Malaysia wants to have its cake and eat it too. Indonesia is potentially a bright spot as China edges further south into its claimed waters. It will happily take Chinese money but Jakarta has little love for the Chinese state and, sometimes, Chinese people.
Cambodia and Laos? Firmly in China’s pocket.
The Philippines? President Rodrigo Duterte leans towards the PRC but not all Filipinos agree. Regardless, the Philippines also isn’t the solid US treaty ally it was a few years back, witnessed in the recent abrogation of a Visiting Forces Agreement that allowed US troops to freely rotate through the country.
Taiwan? Its existence is an affront to the CCP, not least as persistent evidence that consensual government not only suits Chinese people but enables them to thrive and, in a time of Covid-19, survive. But the most that Taiwan can do is defend itself.
Australia? Canberra is now facing a stark choice since the PRC has thrown down the gauntlet. The Chinese ambassador there is threatening economic pain, and the editor of state-owned Global Times recently described Australia as gum stuck to China’s shoe.
Once upon a time such language would have meant a fist on the snout. And plenty of Australians (including Australians of the political class) would like to oblige. But there are also plenty of Australian businessmen, as well as current and former senior government officials, who will grovel if there is money and mineral exports involved.
One suspects the Australians will stand firm on security and sovereignty. But alone, Australia isn’t enough to forestall PRC domination of the region. New Zealand? It faces the same pressure as Australia, but is more likely to fold – and it’s a pretty small island nation anyway.
In South Pacific nations, PRC expansionism and even political subversion continue despite Covid-19. The same thing is happening in the Western and Central Pacific, too.
India? There are some grounds for optimism, as India writ large has had a clearer sense of the Chinese threat for decades. But Indian influence is still largely confined to the Indian Ocean area.
So while the PRC is pushing and in places bullying across the region, resistance is haphazard and no country is a match for China one-on-one.
And so what about the United States? The Americans are trying to hold the line in the Indo-Pacific and are key, independently and as a rallying point for alliances. America still has considerable force in the Asia-Pacific, although there’s a gathering perception it’s not keeping up with China’s military progress.
It didn’t help that while the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt was a Covid-19 casualty in Guam, the PLA Navy’s carrier Liaoning was sailing where the Japanese and Taiwanese would notice.
America has also taken a financial hit and it is doubtful there will be enough funds to bolster defense. And an administration dealing with Covid-19 induced domestic chaos can’t pay as much attention to foreign affairs, even if it wanted to.
Making things dicier is the upcoming presidential election. If Trump loses the election, expect the new Biden administration to relax pressure on the PRC, even if more than a few Biden advisors do understand the Chinese threat. Name the excuse: “nuanced realism,” “statesmanship”, “domestic priorities”, “don’t provoke” and maybe even a “reset” button.
Many Democrats even now claim Trump is hyping the PRC threat as a distraction. Max Baucus, Obama’s former Ambassador to China, savages the Trump administration and its China policy in Chinese propaganda outlets.
Foreign policy luminaries and “China hands”, mostly Democratic Party supporters and some former Obama officials, have signed letters claiming China isn’t a threat or else declaring America should go easy to encourage China’s cooperation to solve the coronavirus crisis. It’s hard to imagine they’ll toughen up later.
And far-left Democrats want to cut defense spending and the nation’s nuclear arsenal as well.
Without serious US pressure on the PRC, don’t expect other Asian nations to stick their necks out except maybe on narrow issues of core domestic security interest. And even then they are unlikely to win against China.
The US election just might determine the future of Asia in terms of continued US presence and influence and all that entails – including support for consensual government, rule of law and human freedoms – or a new PRC dominated region.
Is there a bright side? In certain spots. First, the game isn’t over. The luster is off China in more places than ever. Before, it was possible with some sophistry to declare the PRC unthreatening and only looking to rise peacefully. That’s not so easy now: China’s rise is now scaring several nations. Many are looking around to see if another way is possible.
That creates an opportunity if the US makes the effort to bind together regional nations, not just through security but economically. Treat friends like friends, don’t squeeze them for cash and offer a clear, well-articulated alternative. The timing has never been better for the US to reassert its Asian power.
But which outcome is more likely? Confirmation of Xi’s hunch that the time is now right for a PRC that intimidates Asia into acquiescence and gradually overmatches the US in the region? Or actions by a US-backed partnership to change the odds and strike back against Chinese efforts to dominate?
That question will be better answered after November 3rd.
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is currently a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.