Are China and the U.S. about to go to war over their sharp differences regarding China’s relative silence during the first eight or 10 weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic?
But a surge this week of Chinese and American warplanes and warships into the South China Sea and the East China Sea demonstrate that battle plans have been dusted off by the U.S. and China and that Cold War sabres are being rattled.
This is concrete evidence that China sees an opportunity in a world reeling from COVID-19. Watch as over the next few days, the National People’s Congress rubber stamps draconian new security legislation designed to strip Hong Kong of its last democratic vestiges.
Killing off the democratic protests in Hong Kong that shook the Communist Party establishment last year will remove any pretense that Beijing remains bound by the agreement it struck with Britain in 1997.
That deal required the U.K. to hand the territory back to China on the promise that it would become a special administrative region that would maintain separate governing and economic systems until 2047.
Although most of the world has been paralyzed by the coronavirus, China continues to increase its military incursions into Japanese territorial waters and has been harassing Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indonesian and Vietnamese oil rigs and fishing vessels.
In separate actions, China last month sent warplanes and warships closer to Taiwan than ever before. In August, China plans to stage a mock invasion of Taiwan that it says will include marines, landing craft and helicopters.
The U.S. military has been unusually busy, too. Five American destroyers and cruisers have transited the Taiwan Straits over the past few weeks, B-1 bombers have twice undertaken training runs over the South China Sea this month, and on Thursday, the Pentagon further provoked China by announcing the sale of US$180-million worth of state-of-the-art torpedoes to Taipei.
However, Washington’s biggest message to China by far was the Pacific Fleet Submarine Force’s declaration this week that all its forward-deployed submarines — that is seven or more of them — were at sea at the same time in the western Pacific.
This unusual revelation of what is normally a closely-guarded secret came as the USS Roosevelt finally put to sea after being tied up in Guam for nearly two months while more than 1,000 sailors infected by the coronavirus were treated at a military hospital in the U.S. territory.
Whenever there are war games that attract the interest of rivals, the chance for miscalculations increases. That risk was underlined this week by a Defense Department complaint that USAF aircraft had had nine dangerous mid-air encounters recently with Chinese aircraft and that there had been one dangerous encounter between a Chinese and an American warship.
Close encounters between the U.S., a superpower, and China, an emerging superpower, can quickly devolve into dangerous games of chicken. Indeed, the presence of so much military might in the western Pacific has added an additional layer to a complicated relationship that is already seriously frayed by China’s secrecy over the lethality of the novel coronavirus and its means of transmission after China first became aware of the new virus in late November or early December.
The encounters are also an expression of U.S. frustration with Beijing over its decision to have its formidable propaganda apparatus go into hyperdrive to portray President Xi Jinping as some kind of new age global hero for his brilliant management of the pandemic.
Such is Canadians’ strong disregard for Donald Trump’s administration that they sometimes forget that it is not just Donald Trump who is on Xi’s case.
World leaders, including those from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan, have made it clear that they have hard questions they want to ask of China.
There is a widely-held belief that Xi was not forthcoming about the lethal medical consequences of COVID-19 when the killer infection was festering in Wuhan and that this behaviour caused more people to die and trigger a far greater economic fallout than if China had been forthcoming during December and January.
One aspect of China’s multi-faceted campaign to fit their emperor with new clothes will occur on Friday when President Xi receives a rapturous welcome from the National People’s Congress (or Parliament). With most other countries narrowly focused on the coronavirus emergency and its economic fallout, Xi will use the political lovefest to consolidate his hold on power and expand China’s reach in the region.
Why it looks like Hong Kong, and not Taiwan, will be Beijing’s next target is not hard to divine. Intimidating Taiwan has become much harder for Xi and his People’s Liberation Army commanders with half the 7th fleet and the 5th, 7th and 11th air forces buzzing around near the disputed islands.
But Taiwan remains as crucial an issue for China as Hong Kong.
Xi’s dream of reunification received a strong rebuke in January when Taiwan re-elected President Tsai Ing-wen in a landslide. In a speech this week, President Tsai once again angered Beijing by strongly repudiating its claim that reunification with the Mainland was inevitable.
Canada has mostly chosen to be a bystander during these recent dramas in the Far East. As military tensions increased, Ottawa quietly announced a few weeks ago that HMCS Calgary’s planned summer patrol in the western Pacific was being cancelled. This was ostensibly because of the possibility the crew might become infected with COVID-19.
Maybe so, but that has not stopped the U.S. and China from putting a lot of warships and aircraft into the same space.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas