Many China analysts have concluded the Chinese leadership saw in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic an opportunity to advance China’s strategic agenda because other countries would be distracted by their internal struggles with the virus. (Examples are here, here and here.) The U.S. government, as well, took this interpretation. Morgan Ortagus, U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said in April, “The United States strongly opposes PRC efforts to take advantage of the region’s focus on addressing the COVID pandemic in order to coerce its neighbors in the region.”
This narrative is erroneous. The pandemic was much more a liability than a boon for Beijing’s efforts to promote China’s international reputation and agenda, and the theory that it caused more aggressive Chinese foreign policy moves does not withstand close scrutiny.
Beijing started out in a self-dug hole. As the world became aware of the COVID-19 crisis emerging in Wuhan, China, it also quickly learned that the Chinese government initially tried to suppress important information and hoarded medical supplies. For the first few weeks China was in damage-control mode. Gaining control of the virus at home allowed China to seek favorable notice overseas by “donating” medical supplies to other countries, but China was still scrambling to overcome the embarrassment of the attempted cover-up and of being known as the origin country of the virus.
The pandemic was an opportunity for China in a very narrow sense. As Western Europe and the United States became the new virus epicenters, Chinese propaganda could push a favorable narrative: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government had handled the crisis at home comparatively well, and that China was now demonstrating global leadership by assisting the international community while the United States was out sick. Even if Beijing had successfully managed this narrative, however, it is not clear China’s reputation would have been fully rehabilitated to its pre-pandemic level, given China’s early missteps. In any case, Chinese officials took new, additional actions through the course of the pandemic that damaged China’s reputation and undermined Beijing’s intended narrative.
They were caught pressuring foreign officials to make statements praising China or to avoid criticizing China. They threatened governments with economic punishment for bans against Chinese travelers and, in the case of Australia, for demanding an investigation of the origin of the virus and the role of the World Health Organization. They pandered to the Chinese public’s virus-related xenophobia, resulting in the persecution of Africans living in China and subsequent criticism of China from African countries.
While garnering some international praise for helping other pandemic-stricken countries, the Chinese government appeared thin-skinned, domineering, and desperate to save face for the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at all costs, including putting the health of foreigners at risk. The result was a loss face for China in the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia. China began the pandemic suffering a setback to its global prestige, and by June had squandered its chance to at least partially recover.
The argument that China used the pandemic as a cover for aggressive foreign policy moves is questionable. To be sure, tensions intensified in several China-related hotspots in the first half of 2020. In April, China dispatched a survey ship into waters of the South China Sea near Malaysia but claimed by China. Beijing also announced the establishment of two new administrative districts over the South China Sea, one of them headquartered on an artificial island built on a reef located between Vietnam and the Philippines.
In May, unusually large numbers of Chinese troops entered the Galwan region of the disputed China-India border and demanded the Indians stop construction on their side of the border. Chinese officials also expanded their previous claim to include the entire Galwan Valley.
The same month, a widely-circulated report said Beijing had decided to seize Taiwan-held Pratas Island and would prepare with military drills in August simulating an amphibious assault. Taiwan’s military decided to deploy additional troops to Pratas as a precaution.
Finally, also in May, the Chinese government indicated it would impose a national security law upon Hong Kong that would reduce civil liberties, effectively abrogating Hong Kong’s legal autonomy from China in violation of a treaty Beijing signed with the United Kingdom in 1984.
These events fuel the “distraction” theory that Beijing took bold actions it would not otherwise have taken because Chinese leaders calculated the foreign response would be weakened by the pandemic. It is true that some discussion of China’s actions in foreign media might have been crowded out by stories related to the pandemic. Foreign governments, however, did not fail to notice China’s activities in these hotspots. As far as we can tell, their responses were no different than if there had been no pandemic. They appeared neither preoccupied nor weakened.
Taiwan and the United States reacted to the attempted Chinese intimidation by publicly reaffirming their security cooperation. In a rare move, a U.S. military aircraft flew over Taiwan’s airspace, drawing an angry protest from Beijing. The White House announced that it would sell sophisticated torpedoes to Taiwan. U.S. officials offered an unusually high level of public support to newly re-elected Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. And Taipei announced it would re-open its quasi-consulate on the strategically important U.S. territory of Guam.
In the South China Sea, despite Malaysia’s usually low-key approach to the dispute, Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein proclaimed “We will not compromise on our sovereignty.” The U.S. State Department released a long-overdue statement of unequivocal support for the 2016 ruling by the Law of the Sea’s Arbitral Tribunal that China’s “nine dash line” claim to ownership of most of the South China Sea has no valid legal basis.
In the Galwan Valley, Indian troops stood up to Chinese pressure. As a result, a serious skirmish broke out, resulting in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and unconfirmed reports of an even higher number of Chinese fatalities. Among the negative consequences for Beijing are a pullback of some Indian economic engagement with China and movement by New Delhi toward closer security cooperation with other states worried about China.
Nor did Chinese actions in Hong Kong escape the notice of foreign governments. The United States announced it would no longer treat Hong Kong as separate from China in economic and legal matters and would levy sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for eroding Hong Kong’s civil liberties. The United Kingdom responded by offering residency to 3 million of Hong Kong’s people. The Chinese government stridently condemned both Washington and London.
Each of these hotspots has its own logic, completely distinct from the pandemic, that drives Beijing’s actions.
The increase of tension in the Galwan region in 2020 stems from Chinese displeasure over India building infrastructure to facilitate the movement of its forces toward the border, which India is doing to match similar construction on the Chinese side.
In the South China Sea, the Chinese survey ship in Malaysian waters was a reaction to the Malaysian-contracted drillship West Capella beginning work off the coast of Sabah in October 2019. Beijing’s announcement of a new administrative subdivision might have been a response to the increase in U.S. Navy patrols challenging Chinese maritime claims. The number of these patrols reached a record high in 2019. If Beijing thought the region was distracted by the pandemic, the spring of 2020 would have been an ideal time for the much-anticipated move of declaring a Chinese air defense identification zone over the South China Sea, but this did not happen.
The national security law that Beijing forced on Hong Kong was the culmination of long struggle. In 2003, mass protests thwarted the Hong Kong government’s attempt to criminalize “sedition,” a change Beijing wanted. More mass protests in 2019 forced the Hong Kong government to halt a planned law that would have allowed extradition of Hong Kong’s people to mainland China. Many of the 2019 protesters also demanded additional political rights. From Beijing’s viewpoint, Hong Kong presented multiple problems: “people power,” excessive legal space for dissent, and protests the police could not control, with more on the way. It was these problems, not the pandemic, that led to the national security law in 2020.
China had begun sending hostile military signals to Taiwan when Tsai Ing-wen of the anti-unification Democratic Progress Party was elected president in 2016. This military intimidation was already trending upward prior to the pandemic. Tsai won re-election in January and had her second inauguration in May, stimulating unificationist passion in China that in turn put pressure on Xi to make an even stronger show of force.
Finally, we should remember that China also suffered domestic disruption as a result of the virus outbreak, with serious lingering consequences. Chinese leaders, ever conscious that internal turmoil increases vulnerability to external enemies, were likely worried about foreigners thinking they could make unilateral strategic gains at the expense of a distracted China, the reverse of what many outsiders postulate. A perceived need to show that China was still in fighting shape might have been a factor in China’s 2020 foreign policy. If so, this would reinforce the notion that the pandemic was a burden rather than an opportunity for Beijing.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center.