After finding itself cornered over the handling of Covid19 virus, appropriately named ‘Wuhan virus’, China is embracing an offensive mode globally. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has now instructed its ambassadors to aggressively defend its interests and reputation, even if at the cost of diplomatic niceties. Named the ‘wolf warrior’ these diplomats are now actively pushing Chinese agenda, by employing the tools of racial abuse, fake news, propaganda and conspiracy theories. However, countries around the world instead of being cowed down are now standing up to this diplomatic offensive and China’s hegemonic ambitions.
Nowhere this shift is more pronounced than China’s neighbours in the Indo-Pacific. For years, being at the receiving end of Beijing’s assertiveness in territorial disputes, threats of economic coercion and an aggressive push in their markets, countries of the Indo-Pacific are now making their voice heard. Utilising the opportunity offered by Beijing’s ‘Wuhan virus’ cover-up, these countries are now demanding answers from China, re-aligning their defence postures and coordinating with like-minded allies.
Australia, which for years, has had a prosperous trade relationship with China and flourishing people-to-people contacts is now willing to take on the growing Chinese brazenness. Alarmed by the growing Chinese influence in Canberra’s neighbourhood in the South Pacific, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government since coming to power last year has attempted to contain Beijing by offering economic assistance and infrastructure development, combined with growing political outreach to the island states. On top of that, Canberra on July 1 announced the most significant upgrade for its armed forces in decades, by unveiling a defence spending worth U.S. $187 billion. [iv] The advanced capabilities that Australian defence forces are expected to take on are Long Range Anti-Ship Missile system and hypersonic weapons. These signal a change in Australia’s strategic thinking, in line with the deteriorating security environment in the Indo-Pacific.
Australia is not just recalibrating its posture, but also coordinating with its allies. Following the virtual summit between Australia’s Morrison with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe on July 9, both countries agreed to facilitate joint military exercises and other activities of their defence forces in each other’s country. Moreover, in a move that will certainly rile China, both leaders also agreed that Taiwan should participate in the World Health Organization as an observer. China considers Taiwan a renegade province.
The Japan-Australia summit followed the 9th round of Trilateral Defence Ministerial Meeting between Japanese Defence Minister Taro Kono, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Australian Minister of Defense Linda Reynolds on July 7. The defence ministers in their meeting pointed out one more disturbing trend in the Chinese offensive – the use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia and efforts to disrupt other countries’ resource exploitation activities.
Over the last few years, Beijing has persisted in its use of this militia, primarily because there has not been a military response from any of the concerned powers. Most recently, Beijing used this tactic against Indonesia in February 2020 to ingress into Jakarta’s Exclusive Economic Zone by 70 nautical miles in a show of strength. However, as Beijing continues to push the envelope, Jakarta has demonstrated that it is no longer willing to be a docile witness to the former’s antics.
While the ‘Wuhan virus’ provided the necessary lens for many of China’s neighbours to be vocal, Beijing’s invocation of the national security law in Hong Kong, a former British colony has given the much-required thrust to the ‘Five Eyes’ countries to push back. In a rare joint statement in May 2020, four members of the alliance – U.S., UK, Australia and Canada, had censured China for imposing the national security law and defended Hong Kong as a “bastion of freedom”. Meanwhile, Australia and Canada have announced a review of their ties to Hong Kong. Likewise, the UK has confirmed that it will open a pathway for citizenship for Hong Kong residents with the right to a British National Overseas passport. Most recently, the fifth member, New Zealand, following a consultation call between the Five Eyes’ foreign ministers on July 8, announced a review of ties with Hong Kong including a reappraisal of extradition arrangements, controls on exports and travel advisory for its nationals.
Re-alignment caused by the Chinese aggressiveness is not just limited to its neighbours. In Europe, which has been touted by Beijing as the continent receiving windfall of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative- the infrastructure connectivity project, the consensus is emerging to counter China. Most recently, a new coalition of legislators from 16 European countries and the European Union was set up called the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China. It describes itself as “an international cross-party group of legislators working towards reform on how democratic countries approach China.” One of its recent most high-profile campaigns urges the member countries to review extradition treaties with Hong Kong.
This push on political issues is matched by a growing squeeze of Chinese technology companies, which for years have had a free run in markets around the world by offering cheaper low-quality alternatives – hardware and software. However, it appears that Beijing’s hegemonic pursuits may have nipped its technology crown jewels. Following India’s ban on more than 50 Chinese apps, the U.S. is contemplating a similar move. Besides, the U.S., UK too has made up its mind as evident from its decision to exclude Huawei from its 5G network. France too is taking steps to restrict Huawei’s role in its telecom network.
Even as the global community is united in its response to tackling the mess created by the Covid19 pandemic, Beijing is evidently on a different trip as its actions in Ladakh, South China Sea, Taiwan and Hong Kong demonstrate. U.S. officials have already described China as the most dangerous military rival”. Unless Beijing takes steps to correct its mistakes, dial down rhetoric and address the disputes, it is likely that this growing surge of anti-China sentiment may turn into a tsunami.