And also, that he doesn’t really care about defending Democracy
Americans have had a lot of big things to care about recently, so one thing they may not have noticed or even cared so much about is just how aggressive China’s been getting, especially in Asia and the Pacific. And China might be seeing that as an opportunity.
A lot of what it’s doing is not exactly new, but instead of chipping away at international norms and alliances, and hazily widening human rights violations, it’s put almost everything out in the open and into high gear.
As if China’s decided the U.S. is not going to go out if its way to defend Democracy. Or is not capable of defending it. Or at very least is testing U.S. resolve, and as it continues to get no firm response, pushes a little harder.
This week, India says Chinese military killed at least 20 of its troops at the border between those countries. The dispute over the exact configuration of that border in the Himalayas is long-running, but these are the first combat fatalities there in 45 years. (And there have been no prolonged military clashes in almost 60 years.)
One of the reasons for the never-ending tension at the border between China and India is the fact that the Dalai Lama is in exile in India, while China occupies Tibet. The Chinese government very recently took the unusual move of asserting the boy who was chosen years ago as the Dalai Lama’s successor, and then disappeared, is with his family in China leading “normal lives” and does not wish to be disturbed, according to CNN, while the “alternate successor”, chosen by the Chinese government, is an up-and-comer in Chinese politics.
The killings on the border follows on an unprecedented crackdown by the Chinese government on Hong Kong: culminating with its recent decision to impose new rules severely limiting civil liberties. (“Dominating” might be another way to put it.)
The U.S. government’s response? To declare:
“Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China, given facts on the ground.”
“While the United States once hoped that free and prosperous Hong Kong would provide a model for authoritarian China, it is now clear that China is modeling Hong Kong after itself.”
Really? Is that really such a surprise? Especially given the lackluster response to widespread protests in Hong Kong last year by the U.S. President because he wanted to get a trade deal done?
Now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says: “The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong.” And he’s promoting his statement as opening doors to get tougher with in terms of imposing sanctions, etc., if China doesn’t take preserving some form of Democracy in Hong Kong more seriously.
But it could just as easily turn out to be an excuse for complete capitulation on the part of the U.S. Pompeo is scheduled to meet with Chinese officials today in Hawaii, but frankly the U.S. has bigger fish to fry at the moment.
And China understands that. In fact, may be counting on the fact that when and if the U.S. decides to shift more focus to Hong Kong’s pleas to help preserve something of a Democratic system, the moment for doing anything about it will have passed. (Yes, Hong Kong is part of China, but the U.S. holds enormous influence there, not only because many international companies operate from Hong Kong, but also because Hong Kong’s currency, which is separate from China’s, is directly linked to the U.S. dollar.)
Which leads us into a bunch of things you might not have heard as much about:
- China essentially forced two international banks operating in Hong Kong to sign loyalty pledges, saying they “respect and support” China’s new regulations. Interestingly, HSBC did not issue a formal announcement, but the bank posted photos of its Asia head signing a petition in support of China’s central government on a social media site. Those banks, along with the Bank of China, are responsible for issuing all the currency in Hong Kong (which as we said is tied to the U.S. dollar, not the Chinese renminbi). So loss of that foreign exchange business would’ve been huge, and obviously a business risk they were not willing to take in order to take a stand.
- China has been increasingly aggressive in the Pacific: sending an aircraft carrier close to the coast of Taiwan, over which it still claims sovereignty. That move was also seen as thumbing its nose at the U.S. Pacific Fleet by showing China’s naval strength has not been compromised by COVID-19. You may remember stories of widespread infection of American crew members serving in the Pacific. (Although turns out China may have been tempting fate with this show of strength: it’s now scrambling to stay ahead of a new COVID-19 outbreak, this time in Beijing.)
- China also sent that same aircraft carrier to Japan (it only has two), where it crossed between Okinawa and another Japanese island further South. May not seem like that big a deal, but it’s almost like if the Russian Navy sent a battleship weaving through the Florida Keys.
- China hasn’t become that much more transparent about its human rights abuses against Uighurs in Western China, but it has been approaching the topic internationally with much more impunity, and the attitude that no one in the international community is really going to do anything about it.
- China’s also no doubt playing a role in North Korea getting very war-like again. The Chinese government has long used North Korea as a buffer between itself and South Korea, where there is a huge U.S. military presence. But in the past couple of years China’s leadership started behaving as if North Korea Leader Kim Jong-un’s shenanigans might’ve grown so irritating that they’d almost be willing to let that relationship loosen a little, especially if that meant the U.S. reducing its troop presence in the area, which President Trump seemed all too eager to do. (South Korea got so excited about that prospect it signed a very unfavorable trade deal with the U.S. just to help keep Trump on track with that.) Now, with North Korea literally literally blowing up a North-South liaison office in Kaesong, just inside its border, that seems like an impossibility. (One side note: if Kim Jong-un is alive and well, why is it his sister, Kim Yo-jong who is authorizing all these recent actions and speaking exclusively for the family regime these days? Just asking…) But also keep in mind North Korea can’t do all that much without China’s blessing. (Another side note: all the propagandistic missives from North Korea speaking of things like “the most severe punishments imaginable” and “human scum” kinda lack the same bite they used to have, considering the American President Tweets or says the same or similar when he (frequently) lashes out.)
So in all these actions China seems to be assessing this is a time of opportunity. And a very good time to strike.
There’s a story we came across in Bloomberg: “China Warms to Idea of Four More Years of Trump Presidency”. That’s a terribly misleading headline, because it bases that thesis on a single former trade negotiator for China who doesn’t even really fully share that opinion. (And Trump insists China wants him to lose.) But one thing that one former negotiator says in the article is interesting:
“If Biden is elected, I think this could be more dangerous for China, because he will work with allies to target China, whereas Trump is destroying U.S. alliances.”
Exactly the situation China seems to be trying to leverage right now.