In what can only be described as an astounding speech for the World Economic Forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping actually batted for multilateralism and an international rules-based order. Coming after a year when China’s questionable approach in the earlier part of the pandemic may well have exacerbated the spread of Covid -19, its belligerence against India pushed New Delhi-Beijing ties to the edge, its continued muscle-flexing in the South China Sea disregarded the legitimate rights of Southeast Asian neighbours, and its ongoing hectoring of Taiwan raised tensions palpably across the Taiwan Strait, it is really rich of Xi to pitch for dialogue and international understanding.
Let’s analyse the most startling paragraphs of his speech. Xi says, “We should stay committed to international law and international rules instead of seeking one’s own supremacy… International governance should be based on the rules and consensus reached among us, not on the order given by one or the few. The Charter of the United Nations is the basic and universally recognised norms governing state-to-state relations. Without international law and international rules that are formed and recognised by the global community, the world may fall back to the law of the jungle, and the consequence would be devastating for humanity”.
What international rule is Xi talking about? China has blatantly violated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in carrying out aggressive activities in the South China Sea. As is well known, China in 2016 refused to accept the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that rejected Beijing’s so-called Nine Dash Line cartographical claim over most of the South China Sea. And since then it has in the contested waters aggressively built artificial islands, militarised several features, unilaterally declared administrative districts, rammed fishing boats of neighbouring countries, violated the exclusive economic zones of Asean states, harassed their legitimate commercial operations and tried to singlehandedly dominate the region. So where exactly is China’s respect for international rules when it comes to the South China Sea?
Second, Xi says, “The strong should not bully the weak. Decision should not be made by simply showing off strong muscles or waving a big fist.” Really? What has China been doing along its border with India? For almost 10 months now, Chinese PLA troops have intruded and camped in Indian territory at several points along the Line of Actual Control. No resolution has been achieved despite several rounds of talks. And in June last year, Chinese troops killed 20 Indian soldiers in clashes at the Galwan Valley. Is China not flexing its muscles and waving a big fist along the LAC? Is China not trying to unilaterally change the status quo along the India-China border and move the LAC westward? The answer is clear as daylight.
Third, Xi says, “In the era of economic globalisation, public health emergencies like Covid-19 may very well recur, and global public health governance needs to be enhanced. The Earth is our one and only home. To scale up efforts to address climate change and promote sustainable development bears on the future of humanity. No global problem can be solved by any one country alone. There must be global action, global response and global cooperation.” Then why is China opposed to Taiwan’s free and open participation at the World Health Assembly, even in the middle of a pandemic? Taiwan has done a commendable job of tackling Covid within its borders and can help other countries learn from its experience. Yet, China cussedly opposes Taiwan’s WHO inclusion on political grounds. Doesn’t this fly in the face of multilateralism? Doesn’t this undermine global cooperation on health?
But Xi also cleverly adds, “We should respect and accommodate differences, avoid meddling in other countries’ internal affairs.” By this logic, Beijing can brand Taiwan, Hong Kong and its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea as China’s internal affairs and ignore international rules. In other words, wherever China wants to be aggressive is its internal affair and therefore off limits for the international community. But where China wants to expand its interests it expounds international rules. Such a formulation indeed reeks of hypocrisy.
My analysis is that China is trying to play the aggrieved party and set the tone for relations with the Joe Biden administration in the US. In essence, Xi is telling Biden that China was forced to take an aggressive posture on certain issues due to the previous Trump administration’s policies and that otherwise it is fully committed to multilateralism, dialogue and international cooperation. Xi is hoping this line will work with Biden since the latter’s administration is in favour of multilateralism unlike Trump.
But the one positive thing that Trump did was calling out China’s tactics under Xi. As I have mentioned before, Xi has been overly aggressive on the foreign policy front to shore up his internal political standing and reinforce the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. In short, Xi is trying to tell his internal audience that only the Chinese Communist Party leadership can ensure strategic gains for China, be that in the South China Sea, the Himalayan region, Hong Kong and elsewhere. The undertaking of aggressive tactics is Xi walking the talk on this internal Chinese political-speak.
But where Trump missed a trick is that he was too much of an isolationist. And military/security alliances alone won’t deter China – those days are long gone and Beijing is confident about handling such military challenges short of all out war. What will work are smart economic measures that put pressure on China. Which is why the US rejoining the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement is important. In that sense, Biden has the opportunity to enact a strong China policy that combines both smart economic and military strategies. Xi, given his recent speech, seems to be preparing for this change in US policy.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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