One would have thought that during this global crisis Xi Jinping would have taken some time to contemplate the damage that he has done to Beijing’s reputation.
The world’s nations may be forgiven for being preoccupied, and in many cases overwhelmed, with battling Covid-19. Many of them are focused on little else—especially countries with higher infection rates and limited resources. Even though the virus emanated from China, if Chinese official statistics are to be believed, it has been under control there since March. While this seems a highly dubious claim, particularly given how the virus has been raging out of control in so much of the rest of the world, the pandemic has not stopped the Chinese government from pursuing some long-sought objectives.
At the top of the list, of course, is the imposition of its National Security Law on Hong Kong. Beijing had been waiting for the right time to clamp down on the Special Administrative Region, following the pro-democracy protests that erupted last year. This move is not a surprise, nor is Beijing’s willingness to sacrifice Hong Kong’s reputation as a bastion of free speech, a free press, and a vibrant international business community in the process. For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), its own security and perpetuity trumps all else.
Hong Kong will be hit hard by the action in a variety of ways. Self-censorship has already taken hold—even among some of the city’s most ardent CCP opponents. Many international businesses are already assessing whether they can afford to remain in Hong Kong. And any tourist or visitor to the city that has ever criticized Beijing or the CCP must now consider whether it is even safe to transit through the airport, much less visit Hong Kong. The Law enables the government to arrest anyone deemed to be a national security threat—whether a Hong Kong resident or not. This is sure to have long lasting consequences on the political and economic vitality of the city.
As has been the case in the past, Beijing has continued to conduct military exercises in the South China Sea, while fortifying its military bases in the Spratly and Paracel Islands. In response, the United States sent two of its aircraft carriers to patrol the area as a reminder to Beijing that America maintains a watchful eye on the region. But Beijing knows that some of America’s previous comparative advantages—such as possessing a larger and more sophisticated navy and superior weaponry—are quickly being eroded by its own rising military capabilities.
Will Beijing take advantage of the chaos to raise the stakes against Taiwan? With the Democratic Progressive Party’s election earlier this year, Taiwanese nationalism is alive and well. Beijing has never been better equipped to challenge Taipei militarily, given the size and increasing sophistication of its army and navy. It is now in its best position ever to challenge the US navy, should Washington decide to meet its treaty obligation with Taipei and come to its defence if attacked by Beijing.
With the Donald Trump administration having proven to be so inept, and with Trump not inclined to become engaged in another war, one could argue that now would be a good time for Beijing to make a move against Taiwan. However, while it will no doubt find a way to exert political or economic pressure on the island at this juncture, Beijing will still likely hold its fire, recognizing that invading Taiwan is not the equivalent to imposing a new law against Hong Kong. Doing so would surely evoke a robust defence of the island and result in consequences for Beijing.
Beijing has also been busy doubling down on its bilateral relationships among the nations of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). President Xi Jinping made four trips to five countries in the month of June, seeking to expand Beijing’s soft power through diplomatic initiatives ranging from promoting multilateralism to enhancing economic and humanitarian assistance around the globe. This is consistent with the underlying soft power projection theme associated with the BRI. While so many national leaders have placed travel and overtures on hold during the pandemic, Xi is proceeding to put China’s short and long-term objectives on the front burner.
Beijing is using the BRI and other multilateral initiatives to propel its influence and soft power forward, taking no time to pause while much of the rest of the world has suspended normal activity. The question is whether it is learning anything in the process or is simply busy bulldozing its way through the global landscape, as it has become accustomed to doing. One would have thought that during this global crisis Xi would have taken some time to contemplate the damage that has done to Beijing’s reputation in the process. Such reflection does not appear to be in his playbook.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and author, most recently, of “The America-China Divide”.