China’s Mask Diplomacy: Keeping Up with the Shenanigans
China is renowned for its foreign policy and strategy executions. It never shies away from taking a hardline stance. Over the past month, however, it appears that China has truly outdone itself. It has successfully managed to induce changes in its relations with the US, UK, Australia, Philippines, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Iran, and the obvious - India, all in a month. Along with the unsurprising but unwelcome disruptions Chinese activity is causing in the world order, the development of late would be China’s newfound engagement with Southasian countries. While some of the engagement looks promising in the larger realm of things, most of it has just added to the commotion in global discourse. The essence of Chinese aims and activities truly defies all boxes that one uses to categorize nations as developing or developed across the world. On the one hand, while Beijing is now contesting the Philippines and Vietnam for offshore resources in the South China Sea, it is also rallying for Huawei’s 5G technology to the UK against US sanctions. When the claims to the former are based strictly on maps from the 1940s, the latter happens to be a promise for the future.
In early June in a sudden vote, the National People’s Congress in China approved national security legislation that was to be imposed on Hong Kong. The former British colony, though a part of China, functions on the principle of “One Country, Two Systems”. Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution, invalidates Beijing from making and implementing laws in the financial hub unless they have strictly to do with national security. The legislation not just violated the code, but also altered it to now enable Beijing to make laws for Hong Kong. Curiously, the wordings of the legislation have not been made public and it is being implemented stepwise. As of last week, the legislation has now validated Beijing’s infringements of people’s right to online privacy and has authorized them to either call upon the service providers to remove content or have their equipment seized in case of defiance. In another bold move, Beijing also made it mandatory for companies to hand over their identification records and provide decryption assistance to assure the government against meddling from foreign entities. While tech giants like Facebook and Google have resisted aligning with these orders prioritizing opinions from human rights experts, it might not be long before they kneel to Beijing’s pressure. Not only does this speak for what the future is going to look like for Hong Kong in all probability, but it also validates the recklessness and irreverence China has always known to operate on. A hotel in Hong Kong, cut-off from public accessibility by road diversions and water-filled barriers has been converted to Beijing’s formal offices. This move has not only forced countries to threaten China with trade and treaty call-offs, but a few like Australia and the US have also made good on those threats. Australia suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and adopted several measures (like visa prioritization for Hong Kong’s citizens under its Global Talent Scheme) to attract businesses from the Asian financial hub. Not one to step down, China was quick to make counter-threats to the effect of hampering the Australian trade, the sale of its wine, and such.
Trump was prompt in calling off Hong Kong’s preferential trade status with the US citing the dissolution of a “true Hong Kong”. While this will take a massive hit at the central trade features of Hong Kong, that is not all. The US Congress also passed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act - which imposes sanctions on any foreign individuals or organizations that might aid China in carrying out violations of people’s rights in Hong Kong. As unlikely as the ultimate execution might be, the US is also looking at banning visas of members of the Chinese Congress and their families. Like a long badminton rally that is the US-China relation, China has repeatedly issued warnings for America to focus strictly on its issues and not interfere in matters of Chinese sovereignty.
In another stumping of China’s foreign trade, the UK banned Huawei from its 5G network, backtracking from its earlier promise to limit Huawei’s participation to a maximum of 35 percent and exclude them from core systems. The move, an invitation to obvious Chinese backlash, was induced by the US who threatened to void an intelligence arrangement unless the UK kept in line with American sanctions. Much like Australia, the UK also offered easy visa processes for Hong Kong citizens.
In the same breath, China is also establishing claims to offshore resources from the South China Sea. These claims are planked on the nine-dash line from a vague, 80-year-old map. They are in direct violation of a 2016 verdict by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), who blatantly rejected Beijing’s claims. Suspiciously, China has lazily dragged out the diplomatic resolution of the matter with other stakeholder countries (the Philippines and Vietnam amongst others) and has meanwhile constructed military bases on artificial islands in the area to back its assertions. In a rare display of strength and solidarity, ASEAN members also issued a statement asking China to fall in line with the UNCLOS verdict only to meet with Chinese callousness.
Meanwhile, China has successfully managed to capitalize on Iran’s vulnerability stemming from gaps left by grave economic reparations as well as a supposedly slow Indian response. China and Iran have entered into a long-term agreement that amounts to about 400 billion USD. China has promised to expand banking, telecom, railways, and the crucial 5G infrastructure to Iran, In exchange, not only does China get heavily discounted oil for 25 years but also an opportunity to establish a geopolitical stronghold in an area dominated by the US for about a century now.
In the middle of what truly is a global ruckus, however, China has managed to rebound its economy by a substantial 3.2 percent in the second quarter. The recovery, though largely industry-led and government-stimulated, has bettered even Chinese expectations. Demand continues to suffer, and Chinese people are battling general hopelessness induced by the pandemic as well as the seeming indifference that China appears to have for domestic policies. The government meanwhile, has new battles each beckoning dawn. Calling for countries to focus on their issues and not meddle with China’s sovereignty might as well be a template on the foreign ministry’s desktop by now. China will have to be mindful of the battles it chooses to fight though, given that the world is locked down because of a pandemic and global cooperation might as well be the key to recovery from here.