Tag Archives: xi jinping

A Sideshow About Water

President Xi Jinping made a surprise, unannounced visit to Tibet last week, and few Tibetans saw him. It was a quickly but carefully staged sideshow, heavily controlled by State Security. Tibetans in a militarized Lhasa were ordered to remain in their homes. Only CCP loyalists with special cards were allowed outside, their role being to dress in fancy costumes like extras in a movie, and hail Xi Jinping for the benefit of China’s state television. “It was like curfew, a Tibetan housewife said, those who were caught in the streets without the card were taken to the police stations.”

Xi also visited the holy places of Tibetan Buddhism, for photo opportunities with mandatorily cheering monks. Bitter Winter was told that he repeated the usual slogans that monks should love the Party and follow the Party, and warned that any relations with “separatists” abroad and the “Dalai Lama clique” will not be tolerated.

Read more at “Xi Jinping in Tibet: A Sideshow About Water”

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Wolf Warrior Diplomacy

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, one of the most notorious “wolf warrior diplomats.”

At a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo study meeting held on the afternoon of May 31, Xi Jinping instructed his colleagues that they must “tell a good Chinese story,” “propagate the voice of China,” ensure that China has an “international voice” that matches its “comprehensive national power and international status,” “grasp the right tone,” “be modest and humble,” “pay attention to the strategy and art of the ‘public opinion struggle,’” and “make Chinese discourse more persuasive.” This seems to indicate that the Chinese government has realized that “wolf warrior diplomacy” has placed China in a more difficult state of affairs on the international scene.

Consequently, Xi Jinping wants to make certain adjustments to China’s so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy.” However, it was Xi Jinping himself who initiated China’s wolf warrior diplomacy. It originated from Xi’s concepts of the self-confidence of a great power,” the Chinese model,” the Chinese plan,” and a community with a shared future for mankind.” Moreover, it was Xi himself who bolstered the Chinese public’s sense of nationalism as part of a strategy to further consolidate his power and increase his prestige.

Read more at “Why China’s Wolf Warrior Diplomacy Is Here to Stay”

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Promoting Atheism

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in its 100 years of existence has killed Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, practitioners of folk religions and of Falun Gong, democrats, peasants, workers, professionals, dissident Party members, and pretty much everybody else. There is, however, somebody they have not managed to kill, God. But not for lack of efforts, as we were reminded during the celebration of the CCP’s 100th anniversary.

Because of the celebration, a particularly solemn “9th Scientific Atheism Forum” was held at Nanjing University. It was co-organized by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Marxist Theoretical Discipline Construction and Theoretical Research Project Leading Group, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Marxism, Nanjing University’s School of Marxism, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Science and Atheism Research Center, and the Chinese Atheism Society, on the theme of “One Hundred Years of the Communist Party of China and Marxist Atheism.”

Xue Hailin, from Nanjing University, offered a useful summary of Xi Jinping’s “thought on atheism.” Xi, Xue said by quoting from different speeches, not only emphasized that atheism is “a basic requirement” for being a CCP member, it is also “a mandatory feature of a Socialist country.” Therefore, every Party member should be “a firm atheist and actively promote Marxist atheism.”

Read more at “Chinese Communist Party: 100 Years of Promoting Atheism”

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Technological War

Beijing’s crackdown on initial public offerings by Chinese companies in the US stock market denotes a turn to hard-edged economic nationalism, signaled by President Xi Jinping’s July 6 denunciation of American “technology blockades.”

In an online address to friendly political parties around the world, Xi declared, “We must jointly oppose anyone engaging in technological blockades, technological division and decoupling of development.”

He added that no country had the right to “obstruct the development of other countries and harm their people’s lives through political manipulation.”

The Trump administration banned US investors from owning shares of 35 Chinese companies that Washington says are linked to the Chinese military. The Biden administration expanded the list to 59, which Americans must divest by August 2.

By discouraging Chinese companies from listing in the US, Beijing has said in so many words that it doesn’t need America’s capital markets to finance Chinese companies because it has plenty of capital at home.

Xi’s address “clearly establishes a position where China does not feel inferior to the US,” semiconductor industry guru Handel Jones told Asia Times. Jones is CEO of International Business Strategies, a consulting firm that advises top-level global technology companies.

In a related action, the Chinese government announced strict controls on exports of Chinese data, a critical resource for artificial intelligence applications in several industries including pharmaceuticals.

Read more at China to US: Two can play at technological war

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Christians Under Xi

China’s Christians, at 100 million strong and constituting that country’s largest religious minority, are facing a new government policy of severe religious repression and persecution. The modicum of toleration that, for two generations, allowed the development of a robust, evangelizing Chinese church no longer exists. In the past three years, the government has launched a systematic campaign to cut China’s Christian demographic drastically and control whatever survives within a little “birdcage,” as Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen describes the push by the Chinese Communist Party for ideological conformity.Tactics, aimed principally at church leadership but including ordinary Christians, range from prison to social marginalization, closures of churches, censorship of Christian teaching, secret detention in secret “black jails” for brainwashing and Maoist “struggle sessions,” torture, and likely execution by means of organ excision.

After President Xi Jinping’s directive to “Sinicize” religion, in 2018 the state issued regulations requiring houses of worship to uphold CCP dictates. These include barring minors from churches and from any exposure to religion. Bibles became harder to find and began being censored on the Internet and in app stores. On May 1, 2021, 52 new administrative rules took effect, specifying that religious leaders must actively support CCP practices, leadership, and core values, even in sermons.

Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu, whose ex­communication Pope Francis lifted as a precondition for the Vatican’s 2018 agreement with Beijing, seems to exemplify China’s new model of a Christian leader. Upon his appointment to head the Mindong diocese, he promptly led 33 diocesan priests to a “formation course” at the Central Institute of Socialism with the CCP’s local United Front, declaring with palpable fervor, “To carry out the sinicization of religion with determination, we will continue to follow a path that conforms to socialist society.”

The May rules provide for high-tech enforcement: Active Christians will be subject to state surveillance through “strict gate keeping, verification of identity, and registration.” A database will record church personnel by name and assess individuals’ CCP compliance by listing their “rewards” and “punishments.” Those whose balance sheet shows too many of the latter will be left without a ministry and basic rights. For example, Pastor Ezra Jin and his daughter have been barred from boarding international flights, and his large Zion Church in Beijing lost its lease after he rejected facial-recognition cameras in the church sanctuary.

For rejecting affiliation with the state-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, Bishop Vincent Guo of Mindong was forced to resign last year after the heat, water, and electricity in his apartment were turned off. These tactics model how China’s social-credit system will keep churches in line. Eventually, every Christian, indeed every Chinese, is to have a personal social-credit score, to quietly achieve behavior control through ratcheting the denial of state-regulated goods and services.

The CCP has always put pressure on church leadership to conform, but now the pressure is widespread and intensifying. A Catholic priest in China commented to AsiaNews that the policy is to treat religions “as state institutions” and religious workers as “civil servants.” This is especially ominous as China, a communist police state anxious for religion to wither away, conflates Christianity with Western democracy, its perceived political, economic, and military arch-competitor. A Chinese political cartoon after the recent G-7 meeting showed various animals symbolic of the member states and seated around a table, mimicking Leonardo’s Last Supper, with the U.S. depicted as a bald eagle in Jesus’s chair, under a picture of an empty cross.

Since 2018, thousands of churches, some registered and others underground, have been shut. Some of the most publicized cases involved the large churches of the booming Protestant underground. The state’s dramatic detonation by dynamite of the Golden Lampstand mega church in Shanxi Province in early 2018, following the destruction of a village Catholic church in neighboring Shaanxi, seemed the opening salvo. Later that year, Zion Church and Sichuan’s Early Rain Covenant Church were shut. Pastor Samuel Lamb’s Rongguili Church in Guangzhou, which he opened in 1979 after spending 22 years in prison, and which had become a virtual pilgrimage stop for foreign Christians, was raided and shut in December 2018.

Church closures and desecrations continue. The website Bitter Winter reports that at least 400 Protestant churches, both underground and state-overseen Three-Self Patriotic, in Jiangxi’s Shangrao city were demolished, closed, or repurposed in 2020. In April 2020, 48 Three-Self churches were closed in Yugan county, Jiangxi. A local government official was cited saying that all churches built after 2014, even those holding required permits, were ordered closed there. This spring, according to Bitter Winter, authorities in Jilin and Zhejiang Provinces banned Good News Mission churches, a ministry serving Korean Chinese. Crosses and holy pictures are being continuously removed from Patriotic churches, with some jurisdictions substituting Xi’s picture, and displays of the Ten Commandments being replaced with Xi’s sayings.

Christian leaders refusing to comply with CCP directives are put under various forms of confinement, including prison, house arrest, and secret detention centers called “black jails.” Recent examples of the last include the May 21 detention of Good News Mission leaders and 18 priests and seminarians associated with an underground Catholic seminary in Hebei’s Xinxiang diocese. Some disappear in detention, such as Bishop James Su Zhimin of Baoding, Hebei, detained in the mid 1990s, and famous defense attorney Gao Zhisheng, detained in Yulin, Shaanxi Province, in 2017. Most Christians in extrajudicial detention go undocumented, and all are deprived of basic due process.

This is not the mass detention in concentration camps suffered by Uyghur Muslims, but hundreds or thousands of underground Christian leaders and some congregants have been detained since 2018, some repeatedly. They are held for weeks, months, or even decades in police offices, hotels, and mobile units. They are brainwashed in Communist Party teachings, pressured to register with the Patriotic churches, and punished, typically by forms of “white” torture — including beatings, threats, drugs, and prolonged sleep deprivation — that leave no scars. Uncertainty about the confinement’s duration becomes itself a torment.

On April 1, Radio Free Asia reported on a Sichuanese Christian who said he had been held in a CCP run black jail for about eight or nine months after a raid on his house church in 2018. He told of being locked with other Christians in a basement with “no windows, no ventilation, and no time allowed outside,” with no limit on the brainwashing process, and long solitary confinement for those who refused to “admit their mistakes.” A lawyer, Zhang, was also quoted, saying that in 2013 he spoke with Catholic priests in Hebei Province who learned of the jails after priests who had been in detention for six years were finally released.

An extraordinary statement from the United Nations on June 14 gives insight into the terrible fate of some detainees: Twelve leading U.N. human-rights experts cited credible reports that China harvests body organs from detained Christians, as a punishment targeting specific ethnic, linguistic, or religious minorities. According to these reports, after ultrasound checks, surgeons excise detained believers’ hearts, kidneys, livers, and corneas. Reports that Falun Gong practitioners have been surgically executed for China’s live-organ-transplant business have circulated for 15 years, but this is significant in citing Christian victims, indicating that the practice is more widespread than previously thought.

In an extensive earlier study, former Canadian cabinet minister David Kilgour and experts David Matas and Ethan Gutmann unequivocally concluded that “the source for most of the massive volume of organs for transplants is the killing of innocents: Uyghurs, Tibetans, House Christians and primarily, practitioners of the spiritually based set of exercises Falun Gong.” China’s energetic cover-up — among other things, PRC officials helped to establish the anti-organ-trafficking task force of the World Health Organization — causes such reports to be dismissed as “controversial,” as Matthew Robertson of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation documented last year. The exhibit “Real Bodies”, featuring vivisected Chinese cadavers, is now showing in Las Vegas even though it was canceled in Switzerland in 2018 after Action by Christians against Torture demonstrated that the remains were likely those of extra judicially executed Falun Gong detainees.

Chen Guangcheng, the renowned rights advocate, who is blind, suffered nearly eight years in prison and black jails, and under house arrest, after opposing China’s one-child policy. Following a dramatic escape in 2012, he obtained U.S. asylum. In a recent conversation with me, he emphasized that abuses surrounding extrajudicial detention are CCP policies. The pressures under house arrest, he said, resembled Cultural Revolu­tion struggle sessions, with agents relentlessly interrogating, torturing, and humili­ating the prisoner to break his resistance.

At least five Catholic bishops remain detained or have been confined or pushed from their posts since the 2018 Sino–Vatican agreement. That’s as many as the new appointments under a deal meant to fill some 40 vacant Episcopal seats. In addition to the cases of Bishops Su and Guo, Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu of the Xinxiang diocese in Henan Province was detained on May 21 for “reeducation.” Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin, from Zhejiang, is effectively under house arrest, and the faithful who worshiped with him this spring in a private house chapel were fined $25,000. For refusing to ban minors from church, Bishop Jia Zhiguo of Hebei is under house arrest and tight surveillance. Since the coronavirus lockdown ended, he has been barred from reopening diocesan churches.

The few Christians given the pretense of a trial are mostly names known in the West: Pastor Wang Yi, for example, sentenced to nine years in 2019; Pastor John Cao, an American resident, sentenced to seven years in 2017; and Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai, who may get life for defending freedom. In January 2021, Pastor Li Juncai of the Yuan Yang County House Church in Henan was sentenced to five and a half years for defiance, including refusing to replace the church’s sign proclaiming “Love God and love others” with the message “Love the country and love religion.”

Beijing’s Vatican agreement and its enormous printing contracts with American Bible publishers are subterfuge, intended to buy Western silence while it wages genocide against Uyghur Muslims and undermines other religious minorities. Vatican officials who continue singing the praises of China’s CCP regime, and the Bible publishers who openly celebrate “Christian sinicization” and the forthcoming CCP version of the Chinese Bible, are, knowingly or not, aiding the cover-up.

Christians, along with other religious-minority communities, are now being severely repressed by President Xi and a reinvigorated CCP. The new religious-affairs rules ensure that the crisis will deepen. China’s Christians need much greater Western help.

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Xi Jinping’s Faustian Moment

Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution caught up with the 15-year-old Xi Jinping, as Edward Luttwak recounted recently in the London Review of Books.

The young Xi, son of a Communist luminary disgraced by the Red Guards, was sent to work in Liangjiahe, a miserably poor mountain village of windowless cave houses in a barren landscape of deforested hills in northern Shaanxi.

It was there that another teenage exile lent him a copy of Goethe’s “Faust”, which Xi read again and again till he knew it by heart, as he credibly boasted on meeting Angela Merkel.

That is the single most important data point we have about a man whose public persona consists of Brobdingnagian billboard images and speeches in turgid officialese. The second data point, of course, is that he married Peng Liyuan, a popular singer of sentimental “Heimatslieder.”

Goethe’s great drama is the definitive work of modern literature. Virtually all of it is in rhymed verse, in a language at once so colloquial and so sublime that it defies translation.

Read more at Xi Jinping’s Faustian Moment

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Beyond The Anniversary

When Chinese intellectuals Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao co-founded the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1921, it likely would have been hard for them to imagine that the party would preside over the world’s second-largest and fastest rising economy a century later.

The CPC, currently the world’s largest political party with 95 million members, was founded by a group of magazine editors led by Chen.

In September 1915, Chen published the first edition of “Qingnian Zazhi”, which literally means “Youth Magazine”, to promote the so-called “Six Spirits,” namely anti-slavery, progressiveness, initiative, openness, pragmatism and science, to the public.

Significantly, the publication also initiated the “New Culture Movement” between 1915 and 1924, calling for democracy, equality and socialism. Today  the CPC opens a new chapter by celebrating its 100th anniversary in a gala spectacle aimed to show the world the party’s strength, unity and staying power.

CPC General Secretary and national President Xi Jinping awarded the “July 1 medals” to 29 people and praised them for their contributions to the party and the nation. Xi urged all party members to continue to fight for the “China Dream” – the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and the second centenary goal.

It hasn’t been all peaches and cream for the CPC. China has endured especially tough times under its rule, not least the 1959-61 “Great Chinese Famine” that killed tens of millions, the self-destruction of the 1966-76 “Cultural Revolution” and the “Tiananmen Square Massacre” in 1989.

Read more at China’s Communist Party flexes a century of staying power

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China’s Next 100 Years

As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) turns 100, the late Milton Friedman is trending in cyberspace. The reason: “the spectacular ways in which the Nobel laureate had Asia’s now biggest economy wrong.”

In particular, his strong belief that capitalism would give China no choice but to go the way of Western democracies was dead wrong. Here’s how Friedman put it in 2003, less than two years after Beijing entered the World Trade Organization (WTO): “I predict that China will move increasingly toward political freedom if it continues its successful move to economic freedom.”

The exact opposite has happened. Rather than WTO rules changing China, the nation bent global trade to its own will. Ditto for the internet, which Friedman and his ilk argued would put the CCP out of favor.

President Xi Jinping reminded the globe in dramatic terms of the party’s indisputable role in China’s success – and in continuing its trajectory toward the ranks of advanced world powers. Speaking from Tiananmen Square before thousands of party officials, Xi struck a defiant tone about China’s broader ambitions.

“Nobody should underestimate the staunch determination, firm will and powerful capacity of the Chinese people to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Xi said.

The Chinese people, he added, “will never allow foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us. Whoever nurses delusions of doing that will crack their heads and spill blood on the Great Wall of steel built from the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

Read more at China’s next 100 years relies on the next 10

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If China Ruled the World

In a recent speech at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged not to interfere in other countries’ affairs. He also criticized unnamed countries for bossing others around. (China Global Television Network YouTube video screenshot)

One day in the late 1990s, I had the good fortune to witness an extraordinary dialogue in Beijing. A group of students from Tsinghua University, China’s Harvard, was exchanging views with some very senior American businessmen.

At one point one of the Americans asked the students about their ambitions for their country. Without hesitation, unemotionally and in perfect English, a student responded that he wanted China to be “the most powerful country in the world.”

And what, the American continued, equally unemotionally, “would you have your country do with its power?” That question left the students tongue-tied.

It was, perhaps, an unfair follow-up. These were students, after all, not statesmen. They weren’t responsible for their country’s policies. They would have had no occasion to think about the uses of power. Power is good for its own sake, isn’t it? Besides, back then China was a long way from being the world’s most powerful country.

A paramilitary policeman gestures under a pole with security cameras, US and China’s flags near the Forbidden City ahead of the visit by US President Donald Trump to Beijing, China November 8, 2017. Photo: Agencies

It’s closer today. Some think it’s basically there. In a Pew Research poll of people in 14 developed countries last year, 48% said China is the world’s dominant economic power. Dominant economic power is not exactly the same as world’s most powerful country, but it’s close. Only 35% picked the United States.If not the most powerful country in the world, China is certainly a contender for that title. So the question is worth asking again: “As a great power, if not the greatest, what uses will China make of its power?”

In centuries past great powers colonized and governed other lands. After World War II the Soviet Union installed governments of its choosing in Eastern Europe and sent in troops to squash revolutions against those governments. There’s no reason to think China will follow either of these precedents.

A man uses his mobile phone to take a picture of a big screen showing China’s President Xi Jinping attending the opening session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 5, 2021. Photo: AFP/Stringer

China is, to be sure, fiercely protective of its own territorial integrity. Were Taiwan to declare itself independent, no one can doubt China would invade its “renegade province.” Some fear it might invade even if Taiwan doesn’t declare independence.

Although it’s wrong to talk of a US-China Cold War – the two countries trade with and invest in each other as well as compete – that doesn’t preclude a hot war over Taiwan. The US could find itself forced to defend Taiwan if China invades.

China does not, however, seem to have territorial ambitions beyond its historical borders. Nor is it like the post-World War II Soviet Union, which was both ideologically committed to spreading Communism to other countries and fearful of having hostile neighbors on its western frontier.

If China has an ideological commitment, that commitment is as much to spreading autocracy as a form of government as to communism. China gladly works with autocratic governments, even particularly nasty ones like Myanmar’s after that country’s recent military coup. China doesn’t seem interested in installing such governments, however.

None of this means superpower China is without ambitions. It is, for example, trying to use the United Nations to reshape cyberspace. It has teamed up with Russia in several efforts to impose new cyberspace rules. “It’s breathtaking, really,” writes David Ignatius in the Washington Post. “The nations that have subverted the Internet most aggressively now want to police it, setting their own standards.”

In a world with a dominant China, then, information and ideas would not flow as freely.

The world will certainly have to get used to a great power with a thin skin. When China’s rulers have leverage, they punish criticism. When Australia’s prime minister called for an independent investigation of the origins of the coronavirus last year, China responded by throwing up barriers to Australian exports.

And China is working to increase the leverage it has over other countries. If its 2025 industrial strategy is successful, it will increase the world’s reliance on China for key high-tech products and materials.

If its digital yuan takes hold, more of the world’s trade will be conducted in a currency China controls. Its Belt and Road Initiative also has a leverage-increasing tendency.

A sign for China’s new digital currency is displayed at a shopping mall in Shanghai on March 8, 2021. Photo : AFP / Stringer

It’s too early to predict that China will intervene militarily abroad when it perceives its interests threatened. History suggests that’s what great powers do.

The United States did, in Iraq and Afghanistan among other places. Will China’s concern about Uighur terrorists in Xinjiang province stop at the border, for example? Or if Uighur terrorists started to cause real trouble in China, could we see China’s military chase them into Central Asia?

In a recent speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping laid out a vision of a China interested only in peace and international cooperation. He promised China will never seek hegemony. He pledged not to interfere in other countries’ affairs. He criticized unnamed countries for “bossing others around.”

He meant the United States, of course. China’s complaint is that the US tries to impose its values – human rights, for example – on the world.

Whatever Xi says, it’s hard to believe that if China were the world’s most powerful country it wouldn’t try to export its values. Great powers have been known to do that. It’s fine to preach peace and non-interference but the world will judge China on what it does, not on what Xi says.

As an American, I naturally prefer my country’s values. I am not anti-Chinese. I have tremendous respect for what China has accomplished. Having lived in Hong Kong for nine years and traveled to the mainland frequently, I know and like many Chinese people.

Still, I think the world would be a less happy place if the values of today’s Chinese regime were to win out.

Blocking China’s rise is unrealistic; too many countries have deep economic ties with it to recruit a containment brigade. War would be disastrous – for China, the US and the world.

But if China’s rise seems inevitable, America’s decline isn’t. One of the keys to keeping the peace in the future will be curing China’s rulers of the dangerous misunderstanding that it is.

The world has two great powers, China and the United States, and is likely to have two for some time. What China would do if it were the world’s dominant power is still a theoretical question.

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China Avoiding War For Now

A Chinese warship is seen docked at Garden Island naval base in Sydney on June 3, 2019. Photo: AFP / Peter Parks

Talk of war has become louder in recent days, but the “drumbeat” has been heard for some time now as China’s military capabilities have grown. China does not want war, at least not yet. It’s playing the long game and its evident intentions have become more unnerving.Scholars such as Brendan Taylor, associate professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, have identified four flashpoints for a possible conflict with China, including Korea, the East China Sea, the South China Sea and Taiwan, but conventional war is not likely at this stage.

The armistice between North and South Korea has held for nearly 70 years. The Covid-19 pandemic has severely constrained North Korea’s economy and its testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles has ceased, for now. China has a stake in keeping Kim Jong Un’s regime in power in the North, but the prospects of reverting to a hot war have flowed and ebbed.

Just south of Korea, in the East China Sea, China has intensified its military activities around the Japanese-claimed but uninhabited Senkaku Islands. China appears to be wearing down Japan’s resolve to resist its claims over what Beijing calls the Diaoyu Islands.

A Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force surveillance plane flies over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Kyodo News/AP

The United States has assured Japan the islands fall under their mutual defense security guarantee. But a confrontation with China could test US backing and possibly set the stage for escalated confrontation elsewhere.

Similarly, China’s industrial-scale island-building in the South China Sea has resulted in extensive military hardware and infrastructure. This will enable the Chinese to consolidate their position militarily and assert control over the so-called nine-dash line, its vast claim over most of the sea.

The US Navy continues to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the sea to challenge China’s claims. With thousands of marked and unmarked Chinese vessels operating there, however, the risk of an accident triggering an escalation is real.

A Philippine coast guard boat patrols past Chinese vessels in the South China Sea last month. Philippine Coast Guard/Handout/EPA

In 2016, an international tribunal rejected China’s claims to the waters in a case brought by the Philippines. Despite being a signatory to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China has ignored the tribunal’s ruling and continued to intrude on islands claimed by both the Philippines and Indonesia.

Chinese vessels anchored at the Whitsun Reef, around 320 kilometers (175 nautical miles) west of Bataraza in Palawan in the South China Sea on March 23, 2021. Photo: Handout / Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies / AFP

Recently, 220 Chinese vessels were anchored for months at a reef inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. China’s actions appear premised on the dictum that possession is nine-tenths of the law.Like China’s seizure of the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 that preceded its massive island construction further south, China could conceivably take the unwillingness of the US to challenge its latest moves as a cue for more assertive action over Taiwan. This is, after all, the main prize Beijing seeks to secure President Xi Jinping’s legacy.

Taiwan presents the US and its allies with a conundrum. It is a liberal open democracy and the world’s leading computer-chip maker. It also sits in the middle of what military strategists refer to as the first island chain stretching from Japan in the north to the Philippines in the south. Its strategic significance is profound.

Having adopted a “one China” policy since 1979, the US security guarantee for Taiwan is conditional and tenuous. Reflecting growing unease over China’s actions, polls show strong US public support for defending Taiwan.

So far, ambiguity has served US interests well, providing some assurance to Taiwan while discouraging the People’s Republic of China from invading.

This guarantee has been important for Japan, as well. With its pacifist constitution, and occasional concern over US commitment to its defense, Japan would be closely watching how the US approaches its Taiwan policy.

Meanwhile, China has metamorphosed both economically and militarily. An exponential growth in China’s military capabilities has been matched by a steep rise in the lethality, accuracy, range and quantity of its weapons systems. On top of this, Beijing has ratcheted up its warlike rhetoric and tactics.

Last month, Xi made a muscular speech to the Boao Forum Asia, calling for an acceptance of China not only as an emerging superpower but also as an equal in addressing global challenges.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Xinhua

Sometimes actions speak louder than words. And China’s actions so far have avoided crossing the threshold into open warfare, refusing to present a “nail” to a US “hammer.” This is for good reason. If war did break out, China would be vulnerable. For starters, it shares land borders with 14 countries, bringing the potential for heightened challenges, if not open attack on numerous fronts.

Then there are the economic concerns. China has significant Japanese, US and European industrial investments, and is also overwhelmingly dependent on energy and goods passing through the Malacca Strait between Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, the Indo-Pacific region’s jugular vein.

This reliance on the Malacca Strait – referred to by one analyst as the Malacca dilemma – helps explain why China has invested so much capital in its Belt and Road Initiative and studiously avoided open conflict, at least until it is more self-reliant. To avoid outright war, China evidently reckons it is better to operate a paramilitary force with white-painted ships and armed fishing vessels in the thousands to push its claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea and constrict Taiwan’s freedom of action.

China has significantly upgraded its navy since Xi took power eight years ago. Li Gang/Xinhua/AP

It also recently passed a new law allowing its coast guard to act more like a military body and enforce maritime law – again in violation of the UNCLOS.

China is also expanding its “gray zone” warfare against Taiwan, which includes cyber attacks, repeated incursions of its airspace and territorial waters, and diplomatic isolation to undermine Taiwan’s resolve and ability to resist.

This persistent and escalating challenge by Chinese forces has demonstrated Taiwan’s inability to control its waters and airspace fully. Beijing is continuing to build a fleet of amphibious capabilities to enable an invasion of Taiwan. US pundits are also no longer confident the Americans would win in an outright war over Taiwan, with Washington’s top military officer in the region arguing one could happen within six years.

Taiwan lacks allies other than the United States, but Japan is mindful of the consequences of a US failure to defend Taiwan. Its ocean surveillance and coastal defense capabilities would be exposed if China took Taiwan. But Japan’s constitution precludes direct involvement in defending Taiwan.

Taiwanese soldiers applaud as Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen (not in picture) arrives at a military base in Hsinchu, northern Taiwan on September 10, 2019. Photo: AFP/Sam Yeh

Under its ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty) obligations, the US could call on Australia for military support to defend Taiwan. The mutual assistance provisions are not automatically invoked, but the implications of Canberra standing on the sidelines would be profound.

Warnings about rhetorical drumbeats of war remind us the US is no longer the world’s only superpower and suggest Australia should prepare for a more volatile world.

Rather than rely solely on the US, Australia should bolster its own defense capabilities. At the same time, it should collaborate more with regional partners across Southeast Asia and beyond, particularly Indonesia, Japan, India and South Korea, to deter further belligerence and mitigate the risk of tensions escalating into open war.

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