China_2020

Mapping China’s Strategic Responses in 2020

Kannan R Nair

Kannan R Nair is a Research Fellow at ERA Institute.

Compared to 2019, China formulated an ambitious foreign policy agenda to serve its strategic and national interests abroad in 2020. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing was able to advance its strategic objectives in many directions. 

China displayed its willingness to shake up the status quo in disputed zones of the South and the East China Sea by announcing new administrative districts in the Paracel island chain1. Beijing also effectively capitalized on the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO).2 It immediately filled the void announcing $30 million in additional funding.3 On another front, China opened border conflicts with India and made territorial claims to the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary in Bhutan.4 

With the rapid global spread of COVID-19 and many states concentrating their resources to mitigate the virus, Beijing employed offensive posturing through coercive methodologies. This article outlines how China adopted hybrid warfare tactics to deepen its strategic ambitions globally since the beginning of 2020. 

China’s Hybridity

In 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea, policymakers and scholars ignited debates on hybrid warfare strategies used by Moscow. The ideological imprints of hybrid warfare can be traced back to the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu in his work The Art of War, where he pointed out that ‘the Supreme art of war is to subdue its enemy without fighting.’5 Broadly speaking, hybrid warfare is defined as a blend of conventional, irregular/non-conventional, cyber warfare, and propaganda warfare. Further, hybrid tactics posit to engage the enemy without physical engagement. According to Frank Hoffmann, a former analyst at the Pentagon hybrid threats as ‘Any adversary that simultaneously employs a tailored mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior in the same time and battlespace to obtain their political objectives’.6

With its economic rise and the geopolitical quest for global dominance, scholars have often been skeptical about China’s engagements in international fora throughout the year as irregular. China’s decision to allow international flights to other countries from Wuhan even after the virus spread and the closure of domestic flights to other parts of China are shaping a rational ground in substantiating this skepticism.7

China’s Territorial Claims in 2020

China has active land boundary disputes with all of its South Asian neighbors. Nevertheless, from igniting new disputes in SCS to the spread of COVID-19, China has subsequently redrawn its land boundaries. After the military standoff between Indian and Chinese militaries in June 2020, which resulted in the killing of 20 Indian soldiers with the unknown number of PLA soldiers, it became the first violent attack on the India-China border since 1967. Immediately, Chinese foreign ministry claimed the entire Galwan valley, situated on the Indian side of the Line of Control.8 Strategic experts from China claim this region based on ‘historical rights’ dating back to acquaintances dating back from the Qing Dynasty. 

After the Galwan standoff, the Nepal government amended its constitution to add Limbiyadhura, Kalapani, and Lipulekh, where the Indian armed forces were stationed from 1962. Many experts in New Delhi doubt China for its double stand in India-Nepal border disputes.9 In 2015, India and China agreed in a statement that they would use disputed Lipulekh as a trading pass.10 Immediately after the Galwan clash and Nepal’s constitutional amendment, Beijing twisted its position from 2015 and termed the recent amendment as Nepal’s quest for protecting its territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Months after China’s ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqui described its constitutional amendment to protect its sovereignty, Beijing illegally occupied Nepalese territories 1500 meters towards Dolakha district.11 The PRC also entirely occupied Rui village in the Gorkha district and removed the boundary pillars separating the two countries.12 Given this, the inference can be made that China is exploiting India’s ‘Big brother’ attitude towards small South Asian states and creating regional instability to expand its territory.

The Chinese foreign ministry also stated that they have a boundary dispute with Bhutan for the first time since 1986.13 Beijing also claimed new areas in the eastern and central sectors of the China-Bhutan border recently. Experts specializing in the Himalayan region opine that China is claiming new places to pressurize India’s relations with Bhutan. Scholars are skeptical about China and predict that Beijing is leveraging Bhutan’s geographical proximity to the Indian border. Chinese policymakers, while negotiating with Bhutanese officials, demanded easy access for Beijing to strategically significant India’s Siliguri corridor.14

PRC and the Troubled Sea

First with India, then subsequently Bhutan and Nepal, China updated its boundary claims in the land borders throughout the year. The main reason was to secure greater autonomy in the borders. However, Beijing is not constrained in the maritime boundaries either. By conducting military exercises and attacking vessels of other littoral countries of the South and East China Seas, China maintained a dominant position through deploying military maneuvers in the South China Sea, which is one of the busiest waterways in the world. In May 2020, the 35th escort fleet of the Chinese Navy conducted drills in the Spratly island chain, and these are disputed areas claimed by others like Vietnam and Philippines.15 In April 2020, Vietnam released a video of a Chinese ship sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat in the contested waters of the South China Sea. 16

China has active maritime disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei. Moreover, except Taiwan, all the countries in which China has maritime disputes are members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN is engaging with China over a Code of Conduct in SCS (a set of regional rules and norms in order to avoid conflicts in disputed points in SCS). However, to establish regional dominance and the United States’ reduced role in SCS, China is raising three demands for accepting the Code of Conduct.17 First, ASEAN countries should accept the nine-dash line claim by China. Second, no joint military exercises with outside countries without prior consent from all member states, and lastly, no resource extraction rights for countries from outside the region.

China has an excellent economic presence in all Southeast Asian nations. Some countries like Laos have dwindling reserves that are insufficient to meet the Chinese debt.18 This debt-trap has direct implications in decision-making processes in ASEAN. In 2012, ASEAN failed to issue a joint communique against China on its overlapping maritime claims with Southeast Asian nations.19 The recently concluded 53rd ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting did not condemn the recent coercive acts of China towards ASEAN member countries.20 ASEAN countries are struggling to mitigate COVID-19 and Chinese debt. With PRC flexing its muscles, ASEAN countries may be forced to accept Beijing’s priorities in the Code of Conduct for SCS.

Informed Disinformation Campaigns

A country with all global social networking sites banned, China still holds a premier position in controlling the dissemination of information. When Beijing failed to control the initial spread of the pandemic, China compromised its goodwill abroad. To regain the lost reputation of a responsible international actor, PRC initiated generous aid packages to European countries.21 European leaders praised China’s support, but some like the Netherlands, Spain, and the Czech Republic returned their aid packages from China due to its faulty nature.

China knows that controlling public opinion is the primary criterion for a contest for International leadership. To pursue the stated interest, China deployed an ‘information force’ to reroute the narrative in favor of them. With the use of fake profiles and sophisticated technological infrastructure, the PLA is using bots to disseminate false narratives and propagate it through content farms baking half-truths.22 The PRC follows a two-pronged approach, which permeates through fake social media accounts, and Chinese diplomats promote these conspiracy theories on the global stage. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, supported a growing conspiracy theory openly that the United States brought the virus to Wuhan.23 The United States intelligence also uncovered that Chinese operatives helped to spread fake text messages among U.S. citizens to create panic and expose the inefficiency of government.24 Conversely, on the government front, Google unearthed a malware campaign targeting Joe Biden’s presidential race by hackers linked with the Chinese government.25 While delivering a lecture at National Security College in Canberra, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne defined the disinformation operations as ‘Infodemic,’ which seeks to undermine democratic debates.26

China also conducts influence operations with applications of Chinese origin. In an executive order signed by Donald Trump, it accused TikTok for its potential for data mining and transgressing the basic privacy rights.27 Recently, a report published by Forbes indicted Xiaomi, a Chinese company that is India’s largest smartphone maker, for sending private data of users to China.28

In their report for fact-finding in social media, especially on Facebook, Graphika in its ‘Operation Naval Gazing’ found that China affiliated fake profiles are spoofing accordingly with Artificial Intelligence promoting Chinese position in the South China Sea dispute across Southeast Asia and the United States.29 Cybersecurity firms FireEye and Checkpoint reported that hackers aligned with China are misusing COVID-19 data to inject malware to countries in Southeast Asia. With genuine health information about COVID-19 attached with Sogu and Cobalt strike (types of malware), emails are forwarded to target countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, and Mongolia. This move yielded Beijing multiple benefits; apart from creating a Sino-centric narrative, these cyber-attacks help Chinese hackers to monitor COVID responses on target countries and isolate campaigns impacting the PRC.

In 2020, when Taiwanese presidential elections were conducted, China’s grey zone propaganda was often criticized by independent fact-checkers for misusing freedom of speech.30 Nevertheless, a report published by Doublethink Lab, a non-profit organization in Taiwan, China, is effectively using narratives favoring the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) while COVID-19 cases are starting to spread in Taiwan. Apart from using content farms, Beijing went on further and started ‘precision attacks’ focusing on small communities. The operatives in this regard will be influencers and local collaborators and are predicted to be vulnerable among holding a neutral political position.31

Conclusion

The popular conventionalities of defining power politics in international relations are undergoing rapid change. When countries are preoccupied with containing the virus and salvaging contracting economies, China opts for authoritarian posturing to permeate its national interests. The regular military deployment and intelligence operations are limited to contain technology-driven grey zone conflicts. To concentrate more on non-conventional weaponry and to mitigate cyber threats, a multi-pronged approach is necessary to countries that are under threat. The first step should be coordination among like-minded countries and sustainable alliance-building mechanisms. In 2017, under the Ministry of Defense, the Government of Australia formed a dedicated information warfare group to develop faculties for capacity building in non-conventional warfare modalities.32

Throughout 2020, China’s ‘divide and rule’ strategy in South Asia yielded fruits for its territorial expansion. Confidence building measures should be organized on the grounds of growing trust and belief in liberal democratic values. The development of unofficial Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Plus meetings for integrated COVID response and economic relief is laudable in sharing the burden and balance of China in the Indo-Pacific.

Given this, cooperative information sharing among allied countries is essential. The role of ASEAN and other regional organizations is crucial in counteracting China’s debt-trap diplomacy on small member states. China is investing millions in spreading its propaganda through advertising and even buying international media outlets.33 Through the symmetric flow of Information across the globe with non-partisan actors, should build a network that unifies countries to conduct quality research, training facilities, and infrastructure to contain new-gen asymmetric threats.

References

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This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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