CJ Werleman considers how the Coronavirus crisis has given Beijing further motive to assert itself militarily in the Indo-Pacific region

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“Avoid strength and attack weakness” is the second principle of Chinese Strategist Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. It dictates the deployment of war-making resources towards the enemy’s weakest points, to shorten the path to victory and secure strategic aims.

In the four months since the COVID-19 crisis began wreaking havoc on Beijing’s traditional adversaries – specifically those that threaten its strategic and national interests in the Indo-Pacific region – China has expanded its military operations.

Since April, Chinese forces have killed two-dozen Indian soldiers and illegally annexed Indian territory in the Ladakh region on the India-China border, while Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines have accused China of using the pandemic to place its national flag on resource-rich territories in the South China Sea.

It has also threatened a military assault on Taiwan; carried out a cyber-attack on Australia’s critical infrastructure; and stripped Hong Kong of its semi-autonomous status, ending the territory’s governing policy of “one country, two systems” as its diplomats threaten retaliation and boycotts against countries that openly criticise this.

In short, the international community appears to have a China problem – and the system is blinking red.

Scholars theorise that British colonialism, Japanese military occupation, and the US-led detachment of Taiwan during the 20th Century – or what China refers to as its “century of humiliation” – best explains Beijing’s increasing military aggression and expansionism.

The pandemic has arguably provided China further motive to assert itself in the Indo-Pacific region.

More significantly, liberal theories regarding China’s rise have proven faulty. The country’s political system has not liberalised and democratised as it has become integrated with the global economy. To the contrary, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under General Secretary Xi Xinping has become more authoritarian, threatening, and hostile. It seeks domination, not integration and cooperation.

Beijing’s Han settler colonial project in Xinjiang – or what was once independent East Turkestan – provides a glimpse into the future for what awaits those who reject CCP rule. This rule is forced upon minorities in the form of concentration camps, indoctrination, virtual prisons and other tools associated with hi-tech totalitarianism. 

The fate awaiting millions of pro-democracy Hong Kongers, those in Taiwan and beyond is one that has already befallen 13 million ethnic Uyghur in Xinjiang, and three million in Tibet. The CCP views democracy and autonomy the same way it views Islam – an ideological threat that must be eliminated when convenient.

Beijing’s recent aggression has also ignited a military arms race in Indo-Pacific, a region that represents 50% of global gross domestic product and 60% of the world’s population. 

“China’s economic offensive and its military posturing in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in the South China Sea, and the US responses to those have increased the pace of this undeclared Third World War,” says Major-General S B Asthana, the former Director-General of Infantry of the Indian Army.

Last month, Australia announced it will drastically increase the nation’s defence spending by investing a further $270 billion in its forces over the next decade – with the likely aim being the projection of military power towards the Chinese Navy and its military installations in the South China Sea.

“We have not seen the conflation of global economic and strategic uncertainty now being experienced here in Australia in our region since the existential threat we faced when the global and regional order collapsed in the 1930s and 1940s,” warned Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

India recently signed a $3.5 billion arms deal with the US. Japan is now in its ninth consecutive year of double digit increases in military spending, forced upon it by increased activities of Chinese warplanes and naval vessels near its shores. Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea and Singapore have all voiced concerns towards China’s military aggression in the region.

“China must decide whether to try to get its way as an unencumbered major power, prevailing by dint of its sheer weight and economic strength – but at the risk of strong pushback, not just from the United States but from other countries too,” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien-Loong wrote in a recent op-ed. “This approach is likely to increase tensions and resentment, which would affect China’s standing and influence in the longer term.”

Adding to tension and unease in the region are concerns that an already internationally retreating US won’t recover any time soon from the COVID-19 pandemic.

With 140,000 people having died from the virus and 50 million unemployed, US allies in the region worry that America will be too overwhelmed and focused on an internal recovery to look beyond its borders – leaving them to fend for themselves and consider forming multilateral alliances, leading to further arms races.

“News that Trump will withdraw US troops from Germany, and of his ongoing desire to remove US forces from other allied nations, has landed in Seoul and Tokyo just as North Korea appears poised to embark on a new cycle of provocations,” observes Foreign Policy.

While there hasn’t been a large-scale war in the region since World War Two, there are plenty of ongoing skirmishes and tensions that could evolve into larger conflicts involving the Chinese military, including the Korean Peninsula, Kashmir, Himalayas, and South China Sea.

In his book, The End of the Asian Century, Michael R Auslin, a Fellow in Contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, identifies a three-stage risk cycle that characterises Indo-Pacific: uncertainty leading to insecurity and then resulting in instability, which can produce large-scale interstate military conflicts.

“War is not preordained, but once the risk cycle reaches this last stage, instability, the immediate question is how bad it will become and whether minor flare-ups will turn into serious clashes,” writes Auslin.

Worryingly, Auslin believes that Indo-Pacific finds itself in this final leg of the risk cycle, with China’s military aggression and expansionist measures adding fuel to what has become a fast-burning fire.

The moment has clearly come for the international community to talk openly and honestly about the threat China poses to peace and stability – without the anti-Sino rhetoric and conspiracy theories that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic.


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