Beijing – From remote Himalayan valleys to small tropical islands and tense Western capitals, an increasingly assertive China is taking on conflicts around the world like never before as the United States retreats.
China’s imposition last week of a controversial security law in Hong Kong, defying a barrage of criticism from the West, offered another example of its rising confidence as a global superpower.
The confrontations are seen as part of President Xi Jinping’s nationalist drive to return a once-weak China to its rightful place of dominance in the world and shed past strategies of discreet diplomacy.
They also come as U.S. President Donald Trump alienates allies with his America First policies and riles China with a trade war.
“There is a sense that the time has come for China to claim its spot under the sun,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
That means meeting the call by Xi to “unsheathe the sword,” Tsang said.
The most dramatic flare-up in a trio of territorial rows recently saw 20 Indian troops die in a fight with Chinese soldiers in a disputed part of the Himalayas last month.
Both sides blamed each other for the brawl, which was the deadliest clash between the nuclear-armed neighbors in decades and sent relations plummeting.
China has in recent years also stepped up its claims to most of the South China Sea by building artificial islands and establishing a heavy military presence.
China this last week began naval drills near the Paracels, an archipelago in the sea also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, which stoked tensions further.
The Pentagon voiced concern over the drills on Thursday, saying they would “further destabilize” the region, while Vietnam lodged a diplomatic protest. On Saturday, two U.S. aircraft carriers entered the strategic waterway to conduct joint exercises.
And in the East China Sea, Japan said Chinese bombers last month flew over uninhabited islands claimed by both after Japanese efforts to rename them.
China has also seen relations with a range of Western nations plummet, as it has adopted increasingly strident diplomatic tactics.
The coronavirus pandemic initially forced China into a diplomatic corner, as it fought off blame for months after the virus first emerged in the central city of Wuhan last year.
But, after Western nations failed to control their own outbreaks, China went on the offensive, with Australia one of its main targets.
Australia enraged China by calling for an investigation into the disease’s origins, seen in Beijing as a U.S.-backed attempt to discredit it.
China in turn slapped trade sanctions on Australian goods and issued a volley of intimidating comments, drawing accusations in Canberra of economic “coercion.”
China also formally charged two Canadians with espionage last month, more than a year after their detention, in apparent retaliation for the arrest of a top executive of Chinese telecom giant Huawei in Vancouver.
The failure of Western nations to contain virus outbreaks was a shot in the arm for China’s ruling Communist Party (CCP), said Ling Li, a lecturer on Chinese politics at the University of Vienna.
The chaos abroad has “injected renewed energy to the CCP,” she said, as well as boosting its confidence and emboldening it to “act more proactively on all fronts.”
That confidence has carried over into China’s response to scrutiny of its human rights record.
Beijing’s power play in Hong Kong prompted an international backlash, with mostly Western governments saying the security law erodes the financial hub’s unique freedoms.
China’s response to the world was terse: “It’s none of your business,” a top official said last week.
China vowed to enact countermeasures after Britain offered a path to citizenship for millions of Hong Kongers and the U.S. revoked the city’s special trade status.
It also used a newer tactic, countering the criticism by boasting the support of more than 50 countries at the U.N. Human Rights Council — most with dubious democratic records themselves — when 27 mostly Western nations slammed the move.
Last year, when 22 nations criticized China’s mass internment of Muslims in the Xinjiang region, Beijing responded with a list of 37 countries that supported its “anti-terrorism” strategy.
Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of Beijing’s office for Hong Kong affairs, summed up China’s increasing confidence when responding to the Western criticism of the city’s new security law.
“Gone are the days when the Chinese depended on the whims of others to survive,” Zhang said.
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