Is China using the world’s preoccupation with the Covid-19 crisis to enlarge its position on several border disputes and target rivals that could have a say in shaping the post-pandemic global order? That’s a question now being debated by experts and analysts following a string of actions by China over the past few weeks and months.
India-China border standoff:
The most urgent of the crises is the tense weeks-old face-off between Indian and Chinese border troops in the Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that has sparked at least three clashes since early May, the latest being the violent brawl of June 15 that left 20 Indian soldiers dead.
India has accused China of taking “premeditated and planned action” that reflected an intent to change the status quo on the LAC.
Reasons advanced for China’s actions have ranged from anger over India’s beefing up of infrastructure along the strategic Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road and India’s decision last August to scrap Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and create the union territory of Ladakh, which Beijing has indicated had an impact on its territorial claims in the region. Experts have also pointed to China’s desire to protect its considerable investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a key part of which is located in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Australia cyber attack:
The Australian government said on Friday it was dealing with a massive cyberattack targeting all levels of the administration, industry, education, essential services, critical infrastructure, and political organisations. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said a malicious and sophisticated “state-based cyber actor” was behind the attack, adding that “there are not a large number of state-based actors that can engage in this type of activity”.
Though Morrison didn’t name any country, Australian experts and observers pointed the finger at China. Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told CNN there was a “95% chance that it is China who is responsible for this attack”.
Australia has been vocal in recent months about an international investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic and backed India’s calls for reforms of the World Health Organization for its initial handling of the crisis. China retaliated with tariffs on Australian exports, including barley and beef. India and Australia have also spoken about working together to shape the post-Covid world order.
South China Sea:
There has been no let-up in China’s activities to bolster its presence in the South China Sea, where it is embroiled in maritime boundary disputes with several countries, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. A Vietnamese vessel was rammed by a Chinese ship near Paracel Islands on June 10, months after another Vietnamese boat was sunk by China’s coast guard in the same area. Numerous Chinese vessels have been spotted near Thitu Island, controlled by the Philippines but claimed by China. Earlier this month, Filipino authorities launched work on critical infrastructure on Thitu, located just 24 km from an artificial island created by China and equipped with radars and missiles. Over the past two months, an exploration vessel operated by Malaysia’s state-run oil company Petronas has been harassed in the South China Sea by Chinese vessels.
Of these three countries, Vietnam has often turned to India to back its position in the South China Sea. Last year, Chinese vessels repeatedly operated in areas close to the waters where state-owned ONGC Videsh is engaged in oil and gas production.
On Thursday, China set a new record of sorts by sending its vessels into waters off the Senkaku Islands for 66 consecutive days. The islands in the East China Sea are controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing, and Chinese vessels have been spotted in Japan’s “contiguous zone” every day since April 14. The contiguous zone is the area beyond the territorial sea and extending up to 24 nautical miles from the baseline that a country can claim. Technically, the presence of the Chinese vessels is not an intrusion but Japan regards it as a provocation. Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga told the media on Wednesday the Senkaku islands are “unquestionably our territory historically and under international law” and that a protest had been lodged with China over the presence of the vessels. “We think it is extremely serious that these activities continue,” he said.
Both Japan and India are part of the Quadrilateral security dialogue or Quad, which was upgraded to the level of foreign ministers last September.
China has never been happy with the “one country, two systems” principle put in place for governing the special administrative region of Hong Kong when it was returned by the UK in 1997. After Hong Kong was roiled by protracted and widespread protests last year over the local administration’s efforts to push a bill that would allow people to be extradited to mainland China for trial, Beijing has moved amid the Covid-19 crisis to draft a new national security law for the region that analysts say will undermine the semi-autonomous region’s systems. The draft law, submitted to a standing committee of the National People’s Congress this week, covers secession, subversion of state power, terror activities, and foreign interference.
India, in line with its long-standing policy of not speaking on the domestic and internal politics of China, has not publicly commented on last year’s protests or the new draft law.