THE world could witness armed conflict with China “within the next five years”as an increasingly beliigerent Beijing rejects a post Covid-19 world order, a leading China has warned.
It follows a ramping up of tensions following China’s alleged role in allowing the Covid-19 virus to become a worldwide pandemic, and reports last week that it intends to brand large tracts of the South China as its own Air Defence Identifcation Zone.
Also significant is a small increase in the number of countries supporting Taiwan’s admission to the World Health Assembly – a move which China sees as a crack in its territorial claims perpetuating Taipei’s leaning towards independence
Last week a leaked internal report presented by China’s Ministry of State Security to President Xi Jinping revealed that global anti-China sentiment is at its highest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
According to highly placed sources, Xi has been warned to prepare for a worst-case scenario of armed confrontation with the US.
But China’s collision course with war began long before the coronavirus outbreak, with the rise of nationalist Xi Jinping and the ramping up of so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, named after the world’s largest grossing English language film, Wolf Warrior 2.
“The Chinese themselves have described some of their diplomatic action and diplomats as Wolf Warriors,” says Dean Cheng, Senior Research Fellow for Chinese Political and Military Affairs at the US Heritage Foundation think tank.
“These include firebrands like Lijian Zhao, the foreign ministry spokesman who suggested the US started Covid 19, and Ambassador to France Lu Shaye who was summoned to the Quai D’Orsay after issuing a statement that French nurses were abandoning charges in nursing homes.”
He said the image of faceless Chinese diplomats was now being replaced by a new, robust diplomacy directly linked to the country’s communist party.
“This isn’t China back footed by the Covid crisis. The crisis had merely pushed a door which opened when Xi came to power. This saw the elevation of Yang Jiechi to politburo in 2013. No foreign minister has been on the politburo since 1999. This means that for 20 years Chinese foreign policy has been fed by non-diplomats. Now China’s diplomatic corps has a voice within the Chinese bureaucracy itself.”
Obvious flashpoints are Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Earlier this week New Zealand became the third state, after the US and Japan, to advocate Taiwan’s membership of the World Health Assembly.
Tsai Ing-wen’s administration has been campaigning furiously to attend the next WHA meeting to be held from May 18 as the island’s successful coronavirus containment strategy has attracted the world’s attention.
Despite its proximity to mainland China, Taiwan – which has not implemented any strict lockdowns – has reported just 440 cases and seven deaths so far in its population of 24 million. In comparison, South Korea has reported almost 11,000 cases so far while Singapore in Southeast Asia has recorded over 20,000 cases.
Conversely, Beijing’s control has deprived Taipei of first-hand information, say ministers, putting the health of Taiwanese at risk.
Giving Taiwan a seat in the WHO’s decision-making body “will be an occasion where Taiwan can share our experience in areas such as testing, diagnosis, border control, and community outbreak prevention. To avoid a repeat of the current pandemic and effectively ensure global health security, the world must take action to improve communication and transparency,” said Chen Shih-chung, Taiwan’s Minister of Health and Welfare.
“Conflict over Taiwan is the most immediate possibility, and this has been exacerbated by the Covid crisis,” says Cheng.
“So far most countries have been willing to play along to China’s demands to only recognise the People’s Republic of China. But it’s possible now that mounting evidence of China’s non good citizen status will encourage more to recognise Taiwan as its own country, with a seat on the WHO or even the WHA and observer status at the UN. This would lead to military escalation by China and a reaction by the US, Japan and, diplomatically at least, the UK and other allies.”
The South China Sea remains another powder keg.
“If reports of plans to impose an ADIZ are correct, it would exasperate regional and arguably global tensions because $5.5t worth of trade transits through the South China Seav every year,” he said.
When China’s bluff was called following a similar move in East China Sea, it did not respond militarily when US warships practised freedom of navigation operations. But the rules are changing.
“For instance, China is going back on its word with Indonesia over Natun, whose economic zone conflicts with expanded Chinese claims. Beijing has traditionally avoided tangling with Indonesia, the largest country in SE Asia in terms of population. But now Jakarta has been forced to place attack helicopters on Nantun. It has also deployed coastguard cutters though these are outgunned by China’s coastguard vessels which, at 10,000 tonnes, are almost the size of HMS Belfast.”
Other areas of potential conflict exist, too.
Earlier this month, more than 350 Chinese and Indian troops were involved in clashes along two points along its shared 2,176 mile Line of Actual Control, the de-facto border between the two countries. Though punches were thrown, the situation de-escalated quickly.
In 2017, however, Indian and Chinese troops were engaged in a 73-day stand-off in Doklam tri-junction which triggered fears of a war between the two nuclear-armed powers.
China claims Arunachal Pradesh as part of southern Tibet, while India contests it.
“China borders 17 countries, and we have a set of players in the subcontinent that all have different views of acceptable risk behaviour,” says Cheng.
“India and China are two legs of a three-legged stool, and the problem is that the third leg is Pakistan. Pakistan’s support for terror group, it’s ever closer ties to China, growing US-Indian dialogue are all factors.
“China has visibly sent soldiers into India before. It’s only down to good luck and Indian forbearance that no one has shot anyone yet,” he adds..
“If this does happen, the US could find itself drawn into military conflict.
“Another real scenario would have occurred if North Korea’s President had actually died and China interfered.”
The question, then, is whether “deal-maker” Trump, assuming he’s re-elected in November, and economic warrior Xi have have appetites for military confrontation?
While the US President pulled back from retaliating against the Iranian destruction of a £90m US Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk over the Strait of Hormuz last year, China is not Iran. More to the point: neither is Taiwan. “Trump’s propensity is for financial conflict to get what he wants,” says Chen.
“But if China were to invade Taiwan, for example, even he would recognise that that’s not really viable
“People ignore the fact that he has conducted more foreign ops in his first two years than Obama did in four years.”
China, has also prefers economic and political pressure and has assiduously avoided military conflict since Mao.. But the rules are changing.
“If China creates ADIZ in the South China Sea and can’t enforce it, Xi loses face internally, and that’s significant,” he says.
“The question becomes not ‘is Trump a deal maker’, but is Xi Jinping?
“Up to now everyone played by the rules and military conflict has been avoided,
“But the post-Covid 19 world China is questioning the value of a rule book forced upon them by previous generations when it stops working for them.
“If the US or the rest of the world fails to get back to work quickly, this will affect China, too, in terms of exports.
“While Xi isn’t likely to use military force as a first option now, other than over Taiwan, will that be true five years from now?
“Meanwhile China continues to invest heavily in its military while developing stronger military forced entry intervention capabilities, and its right to consider whether they will be used.”