As the United States has faltered in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, many experts have warned that China is using the situation to enhance its influence across the world. This is part of a familiar pattern in which the United States has worried that its competitors or adversaries were 10 feet tall and growing. But in fact, a striking feature of the recent international landscape has been China’s strategic blunders.
The most significant example is China’s recent incursion into India, in the Galwan Valley, long under dispute by the two countries. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Chinese forces have reportedly taken about 23 square miles of arid land, sparking a deadly skirmish. This has triggered a powerful backlash in India. New Delhi has tried for years to maintain good relations with both the United States and China. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has met with President Xi Jinping 18 times and often rejected talk of aligning with the United States, pursuing a foreign policy characterized as “multi-aligned.”
No one is using that phrase now. India’s media has erupted with anti-Chinese sentiment, and serious analysts are advocating a sharp shift in its foreign policy. India’s recently retired foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale, wrote an op-ed arguing that China’s neighbors had to stop accommodating China’s aggressive moves and recognize that they need “a robust US military presence” to “help them in managing the situation.” He declared, “In the post-COVID age, enjoying the best of both worlds may no longer be an option.”
Or consider China’s relations with its other neighbors. In the past few months, Chinese ships have sunk or harassed ships from Vietnam, Malaysia and Japan in areas that those countries consider their “exclusive economic zones.” This kind of behavior has led to a remarkable strategic reversal in the Philippines. Under President Rodrigo Duterte, Manila had been drifting away from Washington. In February, Duterte announced that he was terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement, a significant setback for Washington’s efforts to maintain close military ties in the region. This month, Manila announced that it would no longer be terminating that agreement, “in light of the political and other developments in the region.”
Or consider Australia, whose economy has benefited enormously from China’s rise. As a result, Canberra had sought friendly relations with Beijing. No more. Australian officials reportedly suspect China of mounting a string of cyberattacks against the country, while reports also suggest Beijing has intimidated Chinese students studying there to remain loyal and used Chinese businessmen in the country as agents of influence. In 2017, Australia’s head of domestic intelligence, Duncan Lewis, testified to its Parliament that foreign interference — meaning Chinese — was occurring on “an unprecedented scale” and had “the potential to cause serious harm to the nation’s sovereignty, the integrity of our political system, our national security capabilities, our economy and other interests.” More recently, after Australia called for an inquiry into the origins of the novel coronavirus, China moved to restrict Australian imports and discourage tourism there, while state media said Australia was “gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes.”
China has adopted a confrontational foreign policy in words as well as deeds. Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian is now famous for his sharp, sometimes abusive language. In the wake of covid-19 and the discussion of China’s culpability in its handling of the outbreak, he publicly floated a conspiracy theory that the disease might have been brought to China by the U.S. Army. The country’s new breed of diplomats, the “wolf warriors,” tend to be just as aggressive and confrontational, believing that offense is the best defense and heaping scorn on anyone who doubts the country’s propaganda. They have also pushed countries to heap praise on China, including for recent shipments of medical supplies (which have often been found to be defective).
Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who brought his country into a quasi-alliance with the United States and initiated economic reforms, had always counseled that Beijing should not push its weight around. “Hide your strength,” he would say, paraphrasing a Chinese proverb. In 2005, an adviser to President Hu Jintao wrote an influential Foreign Affairs essay, “China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’ to Great-Power Status,” expanding on the concept of China as a quiet great power.
These ideas might have sounded like good global citizenship, but they were rooted in an acute understanding of China’s geopolitical position. China is not rising in a vacuum but in a region with other major countries such as Japan and India and Australia. Every action Beijing takes should be considered in relation to the reaction it causes in those nations’ capitals. Thanks to its actions over the past few years under Xi, China today finds itself in the same strategic situation as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War — surrounded by countries that are growing increasingly hostile to it.
Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and a contributing editor for the Atlantic.