The advent of COVID-19 has presented a major challenge to the established global economic, political and strategic order, revealing the fragility of many nations and their traditional metrics of national power. For former US Marine officer and US diplomat Grant Newsham, this presents some serious challenges for the liberal-democratic world order.
Intelligence analysts generally reckon there are some things that could happen but that won’t happen. A Chinese attack on US forces or friends in Asia was one such thing. But COVID-19 might make analysts rethink.
However, there was always a limit. The PRC actually attacking someone – going kinetic? They wouldn’t do that – despite frequent blood-curdling rhetoric. The economic and political costs would be too high – or so it was thought. Rather, Beijing’s main efforts were on the economic and political fronts.
Has COVID-19 emboldened the Chinese?
But something about Chinese behaviour seems different – indeed scarier – following the COVID-19 outbreak in central China in late 2019.
A forceful Chinese move against US forces or partners suddenly doesn’t seem so farfetched.
The US and its allies had better be ready.
Assume that Beijing’s so-called “scientific” decision-making is based on a rough equation including military capability, motivation, and a belief it can “get away with it.”
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is now strong and competent enough to give US forces all they can handle in certain circumstances.
Motivation? China has long sought to displace the US in the Asia/Pacific – a region China believes it should rightly dominate. And the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s “Great Rejuvenation” strategy to restore an imagined territorial integrity is on a timeline – not merely aspirational.
Beijing might be thinking its opportunity is slipping away owing to the effects of COVID-19.
As for “getting away with it:”
When the only country that can stop China is in self-quarantine and its economy shuddering to a stop, and in political turmoil with a difficult election coming up – one might fairly say America is distracted.
So, Beijing just might conclude the time is right.
Indeed, put yourself in President Xi Jinping’s position and you might feel compelled to do something big.
First, COVID-19 hit China far harder than Beijing is letting on. And if the economy does not recover soon mass unrest is possible. Keep in mind that the PRC’s internal security budget is reportedly higher than its “regular” defence budget.
And that was before COVID-19 hit the country.
The CCP kept the virus outbreak under wraps – allowing it to brew up – and then bungled the response. Thousands died and more were sickened – and hundreds of millions forced into “lock-down”. That tends to create resentment against the Chinese leadership – even if it’s dangerous to say so.
But remember that President Xi and the CCP already faced plenty of challenges to their self-image as all-powerful leaders of a regime destined for global supremacy.
For starters, Taiwan refused to bow to intense PRC pressure. President Xi couldn’t even bring Taipei to heel. The island nation recently re-elected – by a large majority – a President opposed to unification with the mainland. Even the opposition KMT realises its “soft on PRC” platform is a loser with most of Taiwan’s electorate.
Taiwan’s effective COVID-19 virus response further humiliates President Xi and the CCP.
Meanwhile, the US government gradually increases its support for Taiwan – and does not hide the fact.
Hong Kong is still rebellious and stared down the CCP’s “front” government last year via massive pro-freedom protests. That must sting. And the US and other countries enacted laws to punish Beijing if it cracks down on Hong Kong. That stings too.
US trade pressure hurts, embarrasses and infuriates Beijing as it exposes China’s economic dependencies. Washington’s efforts to take down Huawei, China’s flagship telecom company, add to Beijing’s resentment.
And China’s claims to the South China Sea (SCS) are not respected. The Americans, Australians, Japanese, Canadians, British, French and others challenge PRC ownership claims – and regularly conduct military operations in the SCS. The PLA orders foreign warships and planes to leave, but they still go about their business.
Moreover, the US is bolstering its military position and alliances in the Asia-Pacific region. And the US is finally improving weaponry and tactics to counter Chinese advantages. The PLA is still excluded from the RIMPAC exercise.
So, along comes COVID-19 – hammering the Chinese economy and the CCP’s reputation – and tarnishing the PRC’s image overseas.
Viewed from President Xi's perspective this is getting dangerous. And the US just might appear as an existential threat to a CCP-run China – and requiring desperate measures.
What is China doing now? It’s doing what it has always done.
First, however, it is helpful to divide PRC activities into several distinct categories: “soft power” – economic and cultural influence; “sharp power” – manipulative diplomatic and economic policies to influence the political system or behavior of a target country; “hard power” – using military force or coercion, or the threat of it.
These “power”’ are intended to be mutually supportive and are wielded simultaneously.
Once the PRC caught its breath, its main soft power push was to make flashy offers of aid to countries hit by the virus. These include Italy, Spain, Serbia, the Philippines, South Korea, Japan and others. Chinese government spokesmen and media are also pushing the line that the PRC sacrificed its citizens to save the rest of the world – and thus deserves praise. Along these lines, the PRC message is that its “system” is superior.
Irony aside, the aid is effective publicity – while distracting attention from where the virus originated. It also tends to split or reduce potential political opposition or criticism of the PRC. And it can evoke gratitude as evidenced by the Serbian PM’s comment:
“The only country that can help us is China. By now, you all understood that European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper. I believe in my brother and friend Xi Jinping, and I believe in Chinese help.”
Venomous even by Chinese standards, Beijing has launched a propaganda campaign asserting the US put the COVID-19 virus into China. Chinese ambassadors worldwide and other government representatives are hammering this line.
US officials including President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced this calumny and the PRC ambassador in Washington was called in for a dressing down (not that it mattered). The Chinese simply doubled down, repeating the lie and crying “racism”.
Why is China doing this? It’s partly to limit domestic criticism for mishandling the COVID-19 outbreak. And it even deflects overseas criticism as some people will believe the charges, or else blame Washington for challenging (and upsetting) the PRC. Indeed, Beijing would like to be rid of President Trump – the first US President in 40 years to stand up to the PRC.
Elsewhere in the Chinese media, there have been threats to dump US Treasury bonds, or to cut pharmaceutical exports to the US and put America “awash in coronavirus”.
These two warnings are familiar ones.
But one senses there is more to all of this.
Specifically, longtime observers note that it seems that the PRC leadership is conditioning the Chinese public to the idea that China is being bullied and insulted, and its “rise” obstructed. And thus a response – even a violent one – is required and justified.
This might resonate with the public, and even China’s leadership might talk themselves into a fight – as Imperial Japan’s leaders did in the 1930s and 1940s.
Further troubling behaviour includes Beijing’s recent expulsion of journalists from The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and The Washington Post. This is arguably just a response to the Americans imposing limits on certain Chinese journalists in the US. But Beijing also picked a fight over a WSJ article whose headline – not the story – called the PRC the “Sick Man of Asia”.
Even by normal CCP standards, Beijing’s reaction seems dangerously thin-skinned. So, perhaps they don’t want witnesses for what is going on or coming next.
One observer who spent many years in China and felt the wrath of Chinese authorities first-hand noted:
“I think they are gearing up for big things. The expulsion of the journos is more than mere tit for tat.
“Same with the mass return of overseas Chinese. That’s not just fear of the WuFlu (COVID-19). Some message must have gone out.”
Maybe all these worries are overblown. Indeed, it could just be that this is only a more aggressive and more venomous than normal Chinese influence campaign — limited to “soft” and “sharp” power.
But here’s the problem with today’s PRC soft and sharp power approaches: They’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.
There isn’t much more China can do with these tools.
Soft power-wise: China has never had much to offer to advanced countries besides tourists and students (and their money). And COVID-19 has reinforced how fleeting these benefits can be.
The PRC is not as appealing as it was a few years ago. The COVID-19 response has highlighted the fundamental nastiness of the communist regime – and more people have noticed.
Although there are plenty of “accommodationists” around – especially in the US and Europe, more people and governments are not so willing to overlook concentration camps, Hong Kong crackdowns, organ harvesting, absurd territorial claims, and shrill belligerence.
Even spreading Chinese money around has its limits – besides the fact, Beijing has a lot less money after COVID-19. And in the developing world Chinese investments seem to provoke as much animosity as goodwill once a little time passes.
Sharp power-wise: Aggressive propaganda efforts to shift attention from questionable CCP behaviour are nothing new. China has done this for years – and did have considerable success conditioning US government officials, academia, businesses, the financial community, and others to avoid doing or saying anything that might offend China.
China also inserted “its people” into international organisations such as ICAO and Interpol. But the US and others are pushing back – as seen in the US’ successful effort, with considerable support, to put its own candidate in place at the World Intellectual Property Organization.
Beijing will keep trying and will find no shortage of foreign “useful idiots” to back its efforts. But the days of “Chimerica” and “PRC as responsible stakeholder” seem over. The longer the effects of COVID-19 remain and people stay indoors and jobless, their view of China will sour.
Chinese tycoon and Communist Party member Jack Ma’s recent promise to send facemasks and virus testing kits to the US in fact grates on many Americans.
So, if soft power and sharp power aren’t likely to prevail – as Beijing was hoping they would, that leaves “hard power”.
This writer thought that fear of massive economic damage, and decoupling from the world trade and financial systems, would restrain Chinese behaviour for perhaps another five to 10 years.
But the PRC has suffered unimaginable economic disruption owing to COVID-19 and may think it can absorb whatever the Americans (and the hapless Europeans) might hit them with.
Or Xi might feel he has little to lose.
Lashing out is a useful distraction domestically and might cause a popular rallying to the flag. And it would give the world something to think about besides how much trouble China has caused everybody.
The “event” just needs to do something that demonstrates and reasserts PRC power – both regionally and globally. And ideally, it causes a distracted US and the free world to think it must humour and not provoke the PRC – in order to avoid thermonuclear war.
The PRC has always hated the US military operating anywhere near the PRC but it wasn’t strong enough to push the issue. Now it is. And in east Asian environs it can muster far more ships than the US Navy, and its long-range missiles can make life difficult for US forces and partners throughout the region.
Even before COVID-19, a Chinese military officer called for sinking a couple of American ships and killing 10,000 US servicemen to teach the Americans a lesson. Recent articles in the Chinese press have talked about using lasers (more often) and electromagnetic weapons against US forces in the region.
This writer asked the US Navy's former head of intelligence in the Pacific, retired Captain James Fanell, what he thought China might do?
“My sense is that Hong Kong may be the first physical target, followed by Taiwan,” he said.
Indeed, even in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Chinese Navy and Air Force still ratchet up pressure on Taiwan with increasingly complex and provocative operations coming closer and closer to Taiwan. And, vitriolic propaganda and threats against Taipei are unabated.
CAPT Fanell added:
“If I was the Pacific Fleet or 7th Fleet N2 again, I’d be advising the Flags (the Admirals) to watch for a possible incident within the 1st and 2nd Island Chains. Imagine if they (the Chinese) launched missiles and sank one of our ships in the SCS … and then provide some kind of bogus evidence that we had made the first shot … maybe an LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) like the Gabrielle Gifford and … smoke it, sink it and then claim the US started it and watch the pressure mount even more on the Trump administration where the Democrats join Beijing in condemning this administration for foolishly sparking a 'wag the dog' (event) to get attention off the virus.”
Such things are always hard to predict. But something seems different. This may not be the time Beijing acts, but having watched China for a few decades, what’s going on now makes the hair on one’s neck stand up.
Hopefully US leaders – military and civilian – are girding their loins even while busy with the Wuhan virus.
Forty years of accommodating China got us into this mess. It’s late in the day, but consider the adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.
Grant Newsham is a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies – particularly focusing on Asia-Pacific defence, political and economic matters. He is a retired US Marine Colonel and was the first US Marine Liaison Officer to the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force.
He also served in intelligence and policy roles for Marine Forces Pacific headquarters, and was the US Marine Attaché, US Embassy Tokyo on two occasions.
Newsham lived in Tokyo for 20 years and worked for over a decade in executive roles at a Western investment bank and a major American high-tech firm. He is also a former US Foreign Service Officer – with work covering a number of regions – including east and south Asia, and specialising in insurgency, counter-insurgency and commercial matters.
Newsham is also an attorney with experience in international trade and public international law. He speaks regularly at a variety of forums on Asian affairs, and has published many articles in a range of periodicals such as Asia Times, The National Interest, USNI Proceedings, The Diplomat, Sankei Shimbun, and Kyodo News.
He spent 2019 in Taipei on a Ministry of Foreign Affairs fellowship researching how to improve Taiwan’s defence capabilities.