As countries around the world work to contain and eradicate the coronavirus, recent developments in the Asia-Pacific have raised concerns among U.S. officials that China is trying to take advantage of the crisis to further its strategic interests.
Where has China been most active in recent weeks?
Recent incidents in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and Hong Kong have ratcheted up regional security tensions at a time when the United States and its allies are least able to respond. The surge in military activity has highlighted the potential for an inadvertent collision or confrontation that could spiral into a larger crisis.
In the South China Sea, China has pushed forward with the development of its artificial islands and continues to intimidate and bully competing claimants. Beijing opened two new research facilities in March, one on the occupied features in the Spratlys; extracted a record-setting amount of natural gas; and detained a crew of Vietnamese fishermen in early April after sinking their boat near the disputed Paracel Islands. Most recently, China announced two new administrative districts in disputed waters that will divert further funds to Chinese administrative, economic, and military development in the region.
Events in the Taiwan Strait have been equally worrisome. Despite a pause in military activity early on in the coronavirus outbreak, China has increased the frequency of its military exercises in recent weeks to prod and harass Taiwan’s defense forces. On April 11, a flotilla of People’s Liberation Navy vessels, including the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning, passed through the Miyako Strait—roughly 200 miles from the northernmost tip of Taiwan—on its way to conduct exercises in the South China Sea. In February and March, Beijing also conducted a number of fighter, bomber, and reconnaissance exercises that either crossed the midline of the Taiwan Strait or came dangerously close to Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The Taiwanese, Japanese, and U.S. militaries were quick to respond by sailing their own warships through the strait and conducting reconnaissance flights.
In Hong Kong, the government has intensified its crackdown on prodemocracy protestors while much of the world is distracted. Despite subdued protests in recent months, the government has begun to prepare for renewed unrest as the coronavirus subsides, recently arresting fifteen prominent protestors. The arrests came just days after the two Chinese representative offices in Hong Kong admonished prodemocracy figures in the legislature for filibustering the passage of new bills—an action some observers view as violating Beijing’s commitment under Article 22 of the special administrative region’s Basic Law not to interfere in Hong Kong’s political system. The new head of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong stoked further fears with a statement that called on the city to enact a national security law that prevents “treason, secession, sedition, [and] subversion” against the Chinese government. The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and other countries have condemned the arrests and urged Beijing’s adherence to the “one country, two systems” policy.
Why is China taking action now?
China aims to project strength and stability abroad while other nations struggle to cope with the virus. China has reported zero infections in its armed forces, a widely uncredited statistic likely touted to suggest unimpeded military capabilities. As the South China Morning Post recently reported, “The Liaoning’s appearance near Taiwan was not only a demonstration of military deterrence to the independence-leaning ruling party in Taiwan, but also a gesture to show off the [People’s Liberation Army]’s greater ability to contain the coronavirus pandemic than its American counterpart.” This message mirrors the narrative promulgated by China’s foreign ministry and diplomats: China was able to quickly curb the virus’s domestic spread and is now taking on a global leadership role.
China is also seizing the opportunity presented by other countries’ reduced military operational capacities and inattention to regional hotspots, especially on the part of the United States. The transit of the Liaoning, for example, occurred while two U.S. aircraft carriers were beset by onboard outbreaks of COVID-19, the disease caused the coronavirus. The USS Ronald Reagan was in Japan for regular maintenance and the USS Theodore Roosevelt was put in port in Guam after its captain was controversially relieved from duty following his plea for greater assistance. This suggests that Beijing was taking advantage of U.S. weakness to intimidate Taiwan with little pushback. As Mike Kafka, spokesman for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told the Wall Street Journal, “Beijing is a net beneficiary of global attention diverted towards the pandemic rather than military activities in the South China Sea.” Beijing may have seen a similar opportunity to take action in Hong Kong, as it did not expect a forceful response from a Washington hampered with the coronavirus.
Washington, however, has been quick to react in other ways, including an April 13 “elephant walk” in which a large number of U.S. aircraft were paraded in Guam to signal the strength of U.S. military capabilities despite the temporarily inoperable carriers. More recently, the United States sent an amphibious assault ship and guided missile cruiser into waters near Malaysia, where a Chinese ship has been tracking a Malaysian oil exploration vessel.
How do developments in North Korea factor into the U.S.-China relationship?
North Korea has also become more active in recent weeks, resuming military exercises, live-fire weapon tests, and missile launches. March marked the busiest missile testing period in the country’s history, with nine tactical missile launches. Testing has continued into April, as Pyongyang launched two missiles just ahead of the South Korean elections and the birthday of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.
Regrettably, geopolitical jockeying is likely to take precedence over any U.S.-China coordination that might advance denuclearization. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump remains focused on maintaining and even tightening sanctions on Pyongyang. China and Russia, however, have repeatedly called for an easing of sanctions over the past year. A recent UN report highlighted the role of Chinese ships in facilitating coal shipments from North Korea—allowing Pyongyang to circumvent sanctions and casting doubt on Beijing’s compliance with their implementation.
On April 15, the U.S. Homeland Security, State, and Treasury departments issued an alert warning of an increase in cyber threats from North Korea and urging countries to raise their vigilance and enhance protective measures. Particularly alarming is the importance of China in enabling North Korean hacking operations: North Korea’s computer scientists often study in northeast China, and the country’s only connections to the internet are routed through China and Russia. In fact, some hacks have been traced directly back to Shenyang, a Chinese city near the North Korean border.
U.S. cooperation with South Korea is also strained after both sides failed to reach a new agreement on sharing defense costs ahead of an April 3 deadline. Lack of coordination among Beijing, Seoul, and Washington is all the more worrying given recent rumors surrounding North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s health. If the regime were to collapse, there would be an immediate need for coordination to deal with a potential nuclear disaster.
Why has North Korea ramped up missile testing and what are the prospects for resuming denuclearization talks?
North Korea has not reported a single coronavirus case. Given the opacity of the situation on the ground, it’s difficult to discern whether recent provocations are meant to signal resolve abroad, while much of the world shudders from the effects of COVID-19, or at home, while the population suffers under strained resources. It could well be both.
Whatever the reason, the coronavirus has not provided an opening for renewed diplomacy. Disagreements persist over sanctions relief, the pace and extent of North Korea’s denuclearization commitments, and the staging of any comprehensive agreement. Pyongyang has focused on developing its nuclear capabilities despite the intensive sanctions regime and a near complete shutdown in the flow of goods due to closed borders.
Meanwhile, Trump has tried to maintain his relationship with Kim. He followed up his January birthday letter with a personal letter in March offering U.S. cooperation to contain the coronavirus. Kim’s response, however, was muted. His younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, emphasized the special relationship between the two leaders but reiterated that weak bilateral relations prevented meaningful progress in negotiations. The regime also struck out at U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, saying his “ludicrous language made us give up on any hopes for dialogue.”
The regime’s rhetoric suggests that Kim sees a direct deal with Trump as his best path forward. He will not, however, let Trump leverage the relationship for one-sided political gain. Pyongyang recently rebuffed a claim by Trump that Kim had sent him a note in reply, warning that the personal relationship should not be “misused for meeting selfish purposes.”
Continued provocations from North Korea are likely in the months ahead, especially as the country approaches the seventy-fifth anniversary of its founding in October. It is doubtful that Kim will pursue substantive negotiations until after the U.S. elections, when Pyongyang knows whom it will being dealing with going forward. Kim may even pressure Trump as he faces reelection by ramping up testing to seek concessions in exchange for some semblance of stability.
What is the outlook for U.S. security engagement with China in the year ahead?
Prior to the breakout of COVID-19, there was already an elevated likelihood of regional crisis, whether from an inadvertent collision in the South China Sea or an incident in the Taiwan Strait. Chinese military officers have been taking riskier actions, perhaps learning from their diplomatic counterparts that assertive stances can earn fast promotions in a system that “rewards toughness [and] leaves the moderates to die out in [the] cold,” as Carnegie-Tsinghua scholar Tong Zhao has argued.
The People’s Liberation Army is in the early stages of a military modernization and reorganization that will increase the size, effectiveness, and reach of its fleet. U.S. military officials have requested an additional $20 billion in funding “to fortify the country’s naval, airborne, and ground-based operations in the Indo-Pacific region.” The United States will feel compelled to ramp up that competition if it believes China is trying to increase its advantages during the pandemic.
The United States has simultaneously supported economic decoupling from China. The Trump administration has reportedly considered new export controls, including measures that would require companies using U.S. chipmaking equipment to obtain licenses to supply certain chips to the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei. During an interview last week, Pompeo argued that because “the Chinese Communist Party failed to be transparent and open and handle data in an appropriate way,” it would “cause many, many countries to rethink what they were doing with respect to their telecom architecture.”
It is too early to predict what the U.S.-China relationship will look like once COVID-19 subsides. In the interim, it is clear that Beijing will pursue its previously established policies while seizing strategic opportunities presented by the diminished capabilities of the United States and other significant players in the Asia-Pacific. Perceptions in Washington that Beijing has exploited a crisis for its benefit will only sow further distrust.
The author is grateful for research assistance provided by Lucas Tcheyan, Ethan Paul, and Bernice Xu.