19 April 2019
Taiwanese Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lee speaks at a news conference in Taipei after Sao Tome and Principe announced Dec. 20 that I would break diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Photo: Reuters
Taiwanese Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lee speaks at a news conference in Taipei after Sao Tome and Principe announced Dec. 20 that I would break diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Photo: Reuters

With 2016 about to end, world ponders China’s muscular rise

As 2016 draws to a close, China’s economic, political and military posture is higher than ever.

It has challenged the United States in the South China Sea by seizing an unmanned underwater vehicle before the US navy could retrieve it, then returned it a few days later with a warning to Washington not to conduct close-in reconnaissance activities near Chinese territory.

The US says the seizure was illegal since the incident occurred in international waters.

China seems to concede that point, saying only that it occurred in “waters facing China”. So China increasingly does what it wants without even the least cover of legality.

Singapore, too, is being given a dose of Chinese medicine. Its armored vehicles were seized in Hong Kong in November while being transshipped back home, after military training exercises in Taiwan.

The island nation has annoyed China by siding with the US on issues such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the South China Sea.

There are signs that Hong Kong is acting under Beijing’s direction. China is responsible for Hong Kong’s defense and foreign affairs.

Singapore troops have been training in Taiwan for decades since Singapore doesn’t have the terrain for such drills.

China has also browbeaten traditionally Buddhist Mongolia, which had permitted the Dalai Lama to visit after being invited by the Gandantegchinlen Monastery.

Afterward, Beijing canceled talks on soft loans and a chastised Mongolia promised never to allow the Dalai Lama to set foot on its soil again.

Ironically, the now cowed Mongols had conquered China in the 13th century and ruled it for generations.

China’s economic muscle also brought Norway to its knees six years after the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned dissident.

China then froze relations, sales of Norwegian salmon plummeted and talks on a free trade agreement halted.

Norway has now performed the modern-day equivalent of the kowtow by saying that it “fully respects China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, attaches high importance to China’s core interests and major concerns … and will do its best to avoid any future damage to the bilateral relations”. Liu Xiaobo, meanwhile, remains in prison.

Norway’s capitulation comes in the wake of similar abject statements by France and Denmark. Leaders of both countries had met with the Dalai Lama, who is considered a splittist by China and has lived in exile since 1959.

Closer to home, China has been increasing pressure on Taiwan. It is ending a diplomatic truce, during which it did not raid Taiwan’s diplomatic allies.

However, after the impoverished African state of Sao Tome and Principe announced Dec. 20 that it would break relations with Taiwan, China immediately welcomed the move, saying it welcomes the country’s “return to the right track of the one-China principle”.

This is clearly a warning to Taiwan that China is prepared to strip off the island’s allies one by one unless it accepts the “one China” principle that Taiwan is a part of China.

With the loss of Sao Tome, Taiwan only has 21 diplomatic partners left, of which the Vatican is by far the most important.

So, as 2017 opens, China can view the world with a certain degree of satisfaction.

Its influence is felt everywhere, and, besides the US, there are few countries that have the wherewithal and the will to stand up to China.

Interestingly, in late December the Beijing newspaper Global Times published the results of a global survey that it had conducted on China’s international image and influence in 2016.

The respondents hailed from 15 countries, including Russia, the US, Japan, South Korea, Germany and Australia.

The survey results showed that 56.6 percent of respondents believe the US will be the most influential country in Asian affairs in the next 10 years, while 22.7 percent chose China and 10.1 percent picked Russia. The European Union came fourth, with 3.7 percent.

As for whether China is a global power, 67.9 percent responded “yes”, 19.4 percent answered “not yet”, 8 percent said “hard to say”, while 4.7 percent answered “no”.

So, already, more people think China is a global power than think that the US will dominate Asia in the next decade.

For a country that denied for decades that it had any ambition to be a superpower, the very holding of such a survey suggests that it now craves first place in Asia and the world.

China is clearly on that trajectory. The question is whether this development is one that the rest of the world will dread or welcome.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe