China on the march?

10 July 2020
CISS experts discuss COVID-19’s impact on regional security
The 2020 CISS Global Forum ‘The COVID Crisis: Lessons Learned, What Next?’ turned its attention to China’s domestic politics and international relations during the chaos of COVID-19.

‘Bide your time, build your strength.’ Deng Xiaoping’s maxim has formed the basis of Chinese foreign policy for decades, but has it now been abandoned? This is the question with which Professor Justin Hastings (leader of CISS’s Regional Security research area) opened the second webinar of the 2020 CISS Global Forum.

Between a reinforced presence in the South China Sea, clashes between Chinese and Indian troops in disputed Himalayan territory, and the deterioration of Australia-China relations, the Chinese strategy of quietly consolidating global power and influence seems to have fallen by the wayside during the COVID-19 crisis.

Joining the discussion were Associate Professor Salvatore Babones, Dr Minglu Chen, Associate Professor Simon Reay-Atkinson and Dr Thomas Wilkins, who debated the domestic and international drivers of China’s behaviour.

‘China’s internal situation shapes its external behaviours,’ said Minglu Chen. ‘The Chinese state is currently facing internal criticism caused by the policy failure in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the communist ideology becoming less relevant in contemporary China, and the economy in decline, the Chinese state is attempting to reinforce its legitimacy – and nationalist sentiment is a very powerful tool in times of crisis.’

Salvatore Babones suggested that rather than being ‘on the march’, China is ‘staggering forward’. Under massive pressure on multiple economic fronts, China is seeing its manufacturing industry supply where there is no demand, while tighter and tighter currency controls are being applied to prevent the collapse of the Chinese yuan. Meanwhile, relations with neighbours continue to deteriorate.

‘China is what we used to simply call “at war” with India,’ Babones said. ‘It has ongoing confrontations with both Vietnam and Malaysia in the South China Sea, an airspace duel with Taiwan, a dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, and a World Health Organization investigation which will inevitably focus on China's role in the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, I think we’re more likely to see an insular “fortress China”, rather than a China on the march.’

The Chinese state is attempting to reinforce its legitimacy – and nationalist sentiment is a very powerful tool in times of crisis.
Dr Minglu Chen

However, Thomas Wilkins warned against attributing too much of China’s current behaviour to domestic political woes. ‘I agree that China has problems, but I don't think that means China doesn't have a strategic plan – it is still powerful. We've seen China’s activities in Hong Kong, in the South China Sea, border tensions with India all ramped up. I think maybe a partial explanation for this is some kind of proactive – almost offensive – defence. There's no disputing that China is the source of COVID-19, and in some respects bears responsibility for that. I think we are seeing China trying to shift the focus from that by aggravating other issues.’

Simon Reay-Atkinson neatly summarised China’s domestic and international tensions when he suggested that we might in fact be witnessing ‘an explosion and an implosion at the same time’.

‘If this is the case, perhaps the global community needs to rethink how it deals with China,' he said. 'Rather than watching China retreat into its “fortress”, rather than retreating into fortresses ourselves, can we explore new ways to help China fit in the global rules-based order? Trying to rival China militarily is nonsensical. Chinese military capacity is increasing and countries in the Indo-Pacific are ill-equipped – and would be ill-advised – to compete symmetrically.’

What other avenues are there for Australia to respond to China’s destabilising influence in the Indo-Pacific region? The answer lies in the strengthening of relationships between middle powers which share concerns about China’s behaviour.

‘Japan has been doing a lot to catalyse cooperation between like-minded countries with shared values,’ said Thomas Wilkins. ‘They’ve built strategic partnerships throughout Southeast Asia, and with India, Australia, France, and the UK, in an approach that promotes the global rules-based order and values-based diplomacy.’

Of course, China and Australia do not always see eye to eye on what constitutes ‘the rules’ – but this is a situation that both countries must accept. ‘On the one hand, China understands the Australia-US relationship and doesn't expect any change,’ said Minglu Chen. ‘On the other, Australia has to deal with the fact that China is simultaneously a key economic partner and a security threat.

‘We have to make our policies based on this fact, and at the same time bear in mind that China is aware of this situation as well.’

Bringing together diverse international participants the Global Forum responds rapidly, critically and reflexively to new and pressing global security issues. Click here to find out more.

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