Rufat Ahmadzada
Observing the Caucasus, Iran and Middle East

Assertiveness at home & abroad:

Analysing China’s aggressive regional policies & fragile internal dynamics
Plenary session of the new Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China

Tensions with Taiwan

The growing tensions between China and Taiwan once again illustrate China’s assertiveness in its relations with its neighbours. Early in January Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that China reserves the right to use force to bring Taiwan under its control. He also said that “Taiwan must and will be united with China”. In response, the Taiwanese president promised to protect Taiwan’s democracy and urged the international community to defend the island’s “way of life.” On 24th January, the United States sent two warships to Taiwan in support of the Taiwanese government. Although the move risks increasing tensions between China and the US amidst the trade war, it will be viewed in Taiwan as a sign of support from the Trump administration.

President Trump recently signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act into law. According to the White House, the act “establishes a multifaceted US strategy to increase US security, economic interests and values in the Indo-Pacific region”. The Act calls on the US president to support the transfer of “defense articles” to Taiwan and also to promote high-level official visits to the island, which is encouraged by the Taiwan Travel Act.

China strongly asserts its right to the island and rejects any foreign interference in its relations with Taiwan, describing them as an “internal Chinese matter”. Beijing threatens to invade if Taiwan declares its independence. Although the United States does not recognize Taiwan, it is bound to defend it.

Since the election of Tsai Ing-Wen as president of Taiwan in 2016, China has increased its pressure by sending military aircraft and ships to circle the island in military drills. The Chinese claim on Taiwan is longstanding, but what makes it different this time is Chinese President Xi Jingping’s long-term vision for global China, in which the Chinese state cannot be imagined without Taiwan.

Addressing the National People’s Congress in March 2018, President Xi made it clear that China would pursue a more assertive foreign policy. President Xi has overseen increased assertiveness in China’s security and foreign policy. The Chinese military has been deployed overseas, while its military base in Djibouti has become an increasingly important outpost in the Horn of Africa in terms of exerting Beijing’s political influence. China’s soft power policy around the globe is heavily dependent on its economic investments. The establishment of the Chinese military base in Africa shows that Xi Jingping’s new assertiveness abroad is based on strategic and security considerations as well as soft power.

Before he came to power Xi was thought to be a reformer politician whose primary concern would be transforming the Chinese state. However, after he took office his policies have become more assertive both internally and externally. Certainly, he is trying to make China a global superpower through economic and cultural means. But his recent actions in the region and globally are of concern as he does not exclude the use of military force to preserve China’s national interests. The Chinese leadership’s policies make one thing clear – China is in a hurry to become a superpower.

The South China Sea Dispute and Global Risks

China’s national interests in a variety of issues could escalate into global conflict. Beijing’s policy towards Taiwan, the South China Sea dispute and the domestic crackdown on ethnic minorities, particularly Muslim Uighurs, could all have a significant impact on the world stage. Taiwan and the South China Sea dispute in particular have the potential to bring it into confrontation with the United States.

China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are further evidence of its assertiveness. The South China Sea territorial dispute involves a number of countries. China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing claims. The People’s Republic of China asserts its claims according to the Nine Dash Line and backs them by building up naval forces in the region. It has also built several artificial islands where Chinese naval patrols are stationed.

The South China Sea is vital for China in becoming a hegemonic economic and military power. First and foremost, the sea is a massive shipping lane with 5.3 trillion dollars in trade. This is almost one-third of global maritime trade and more than 1 trillion is accounted for by trade with the US. In addition, the sea is thought to be rich in oil and natural gas which also heightens claims to the area. Chinese economic, industrial and technological growth requires a significant amount of traditional energy resources. China imports oil from the Gulf and Iran in order to address its energy needs. Moreover, Beijing is keen to build a gas transport pipeline from the Central Asian and Caspian region.

Washington does not officially take a side in the dispute, though it has condemned Beijing for “militarizing” the sea. The dispute has the potential to become a new flashpoint in global affairs. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague found that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights over the disputed islands in the South China Sea.

Regional countries and the US are concerned at China’s military build up. The US has a military presence in the region and closely monitors the Chinese activities. Referring to the Chinese military activities in the area, Republican Senator James Inhofe said that “China is preparing for World War Three”. A US intelligence assessment released on Tuesday says that China’s military build-up in the South China Sea and especially the Spratly Islands remains a national concern. The US does not recognize the Chinese claims upon the sea and frequently conducts “freedom of navigation” exercises with its naval ships in the region. The recently signed Asia Reassurance Initiative Act supports the US naval forces’ “freedom of navigation” drills and calls on the US government to hold military drills with its strategic allies in the South China Sea.

The Chinese leadership strongly opposes the US military presence in the region and considers American support for other coastal nations as part of the strategic competition between the two countries. China’s growing economic, technological and military activities are very concerning from the US standpoint. During his election campaign Donald Trump advocated a strong China policy. That has been reflected in the US trade war with China. Overall, the United States needs a comprehensive China policy in order to contain the growing Chinese assertiveness in global affairs. American allies in the region should be prioritized in terms of providing military equipment, holding joint military drills and economic development. This in turn would require insecure regional powers to set aside their political differences and put up a united front to confront the Chinese aggression.

Fragile Domestic Dimension: Crackdown on Ethnic Minorities

China’s increasing role in global affairs and its recent assertive foreign policy should be looked at in the domestic framework. Chinese territorial claims on Taiwan and the South China Sea to a certain extent mask internal insecurity. The latest crackdown on ethnic minorities in the country shows that the Communist Party is keen to cement its dominance in a region where it fears potential unrest. China’s inhumane policies against the Uighur population have finally come to international attention. The Communist Party is trying to indoctrinate the Uighur Muslim population in the state ideology. Banning religious sermons, rituals and books, interning more than one million men in interim camps and forcibly indoctrinating them is a sign of deep insecurity in China’s psyche.

China’s population consists of a variety of ethnic groups but the state has managed to convince the majority that they are “Chinese”. China absorbed the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and Tibet in the 19th century. As part of their state assimilation policies they have settled the two strategic regions with the majority Han Chinese ethnic people. Ethnic absorption coupled with the prohibition of religious identities and indoctrination at the state level aims to solidify Chinese sovereignty in these vitally strategic regions.

The domestic dimension will be crucial in China’s ambition to become a global superpower. The international community ought to hold China accountable for its human rights violations, which in turn might help to counter Beijing’s aggressive foreign policy.

About the Author
A native of Azerbaijan, I write extensively on political developments in the Caucasus, Iran and the Middle East, including for the website I have a Masters' degree in International Politics & Human Rights from City, University of London.
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