China ramps up international aggression ahead of Congress

Linda J. Dodson

BEIJING — China is straining its relations with the rest of the world, taking a hardline stance against countries questioning its role in the spread of the new coronavirus and ratcheting up tensions in the South China and East China seas.

The aggressive posture is partially meant for a domestic audience in the leadup to the National People’s Congress, which starts on Friday. But it is also meant to signal the nation of 1.4 billion people intends to make its presence felt in global affairs and that its naval ambitions must be reckoned with.

China has gained confidence by largely having recovered from the outbreak while most other major countries are struggling to contain it.

It has sent a message to Australia by suspending some beef imports and put Asian neighbors on guard by becoming more aggressive in international waters now that the virus has hobbled the U.S. Navy.

Its coast guard has even intruded into Japanese waters near the Senkaku Islands, Okinawa Prefecture. On May 8, four China Coast Guard ships made their way into these waters, and two of them approached and chased a Japanese fishing boat in an unusually aggressive move.

In mid-April, China announced it was setting up two administrative units on islands in the South China Sea, calling them the Xisha and Nansha districts, subdivisions of the city of Sansha on Hainan Island.

China, which has been building military facilities on the islands, is now moving to establish administrative functions on them. The move has provoked a strong protest from Vietnam.

China’s expanded naval presence in these waters comes as U.S. Navy ships in the area have suffered coronavirus outbreaks. Infections have been found among crews of four U.S. aircraft carriers. Five sailors who were cleared to return to the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt after contracting the virus tested positive again on Thursday, muddying the outlook for the ship’s return to normal operations.

Alarmed by China’s renewed assertiveness in the waters, the U.S. conducted back-to-back freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea at the end of April, sending warships sail within 12 nautical miles from artificial islands built by China to assert its territorial claims.

Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and an expert in naval operations, says the missions were aimed at demonstrating to China that the U.S. has the ability to maintain its presence in the South China Sea even while the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s Pacific deployment is suspended.

Beijing has also adopted a hardline stance toward issues concerning the pandemic. As the Australian government has started lobbying for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, China partially suspended its beef imports from Australia, striking the country where it hurts most. China is the largest importer of Australian beef, one of the country’s key exports.

On April 12, a post on the website of the Chinese Embassy in Paris harshly criticized the West’s handling of the outbreak, saying politicians in Western countries are causing massive deaths among their citizenries.

Until his appointment as envoy to Canada in 2017, Lu Shaye, now China’s ambassador to France, served as director-general of the Bureau of Policy Research at the Office of Foreign Affairs of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, which effectively commands China’s diplomatic operations. This fact makes many observers believe Lu’s remarks and actions reflect the agenda of China’s leadership.

A commentary published in the party mouthpiece the People’s Daily denies China is responsible for the spread of the virus beyond its border. “With the most comprehensive, rigorous and thorough measures taken by the Chinese government within the shortest possible time,” the outbreak was swiftly contained and confined mostly to Wuhan, the article says. “Having effectively broken the chain of transmission domestically, it is no surprise that very few cases were exported from China.”

The commentary also denies that the pandemic originated in a virus lab in Wuhan.

It was clearly an arrow from China’s propaganda quiver telling domestic and foreign audiences that the party was quick and effective in responding to the outbreak.

Meanwhile, political discourse in China is referring to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Many feel it is a cautionary tale: In an uprising led by a secret organization in northern China against the spread of Western and Japanese influence there, the rebels, dubbed “boxers” by Westerners, killed foreigners and destroyed foreign property. After an international force subdued the uprising, China’s Qing dynasty agreed to pay crippling reparations.

China’s aggressive diplomatic efforts to counter growing U.S. and European calls to hold Beijing responsible for the pandemic are backfiring, a diplomat in Beijing said, and instead are provoking an even greater backlash in the West.

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