China alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) to the first cases of COVID-19 a year ago.
As the respiratory illness spread rapidly across the globe, Beijing’s handling of the disease – first detected in the central city of Wuhan – drew intense international scrutiny and opened a new front in the deteriorating ties between China and the United States.
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Although Beijing managed to stamp out its own outbreak and became the only large economy to grow this year, analysts say President Xi Jinping’s China faces the new year more “diplomatically diminished” than ever. Owing not only to the pandemic, but also its crackdown in semi-autonomous Hong Kong and its adoption of more coercive diplomatic tactics – including in Taiwan, India and Australia.
Here’s a review of five stories about China’s foreign policy challenges from 2020.
Hong Kong’s freedoms ‘wiped out’
Hong Kong’s protest movement kicked off 2020 with a huge rally on New Year’s day, which ended in violent clashes and saw the arrest of about 400 people marching against Beijing’s tightening grip on the city.
The bleak start to the New Year only got worse.
The mass arrests – coupled with coronavirus related restrictions and a sweeping new national security law – would go on to quash Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
In March, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam banned gatherings of more than four people to stem the spread of the virus in March. But protests resumed as soon as the city’s outbreak got under control. Then on June 30, on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule, China’s parliament passed new national security legislation, punishing anything Beijing deemed secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces in Hong Kong with up to life in prison.
Many decried the sweeping legislation as the “end of Hong Kong’s autonomy”, but Beijing defended it as necessary to restore stability after a year of mass protests. Soon afterwards, the protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” was banned in schools, dozens of pro-democracy candidates were disqualified from contesting legislative elections and media tycoon Jimmy Lai was arrested and his office raided for suspected collusion with foreign forces.
Activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were jailed on protest-related charges, while dozens including activist Nathan Law and legislator Ted Hui fled into exile.
Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, also postponed a legislative election scheduled for September by a year, and expelled four opposition members from the legislature on national security grounds. The moves resulted in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp resigning en masse from the legislature.
“We are seeing a place that had almost complete freedom become subject to a dictatorship, with all forms of political opposition being wiped out in front of our eyes,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
Following the passage of the national security law, the US, UK, Australia and several other Western nations suspended extradition treaties with Hong Kong, while Washington ended the city’s preferential trading status. US President Donald Trump’s administration also slapped sanctions on Lam and key officials for the crackdown in Hong Kong.
‘Grey-zone’ warfare in Taiwan
Whilst quashing resistance to its rule in Hong Kong, China also became more assertive towards Taiwan, a self-ruled and democratically governed island that Beijing claims as its own.
Since President Tsai Ing-wen’s landslide re-election in January, China has engaged in a form of “grey-zone” warfare in relation to the island, deploying more than 100 aircraft towards Taiwan’s airspace and forcing the territory’s military to scramble its jets on numerous occasions.
Earlier this month, China also sent an aircraft carrier group through the Taiwan Strait on their way to drills in the disputed South China Sea.
Tsai, who has rejected Chinese rule in Taiwan, said on December 8 that the island was now facing military threats on a “daily basis” from “authoritarian forces”.
Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Beijing is trying to “increase psychological pressure on the Taiwanese military and the public”.
She also noted rising tensions between Beijing and Taiwan’s China-friendly opposition Kuomintang (KMT), which pulled out of a key cross-strait forum after Chinese state-television made disparaging remarks about a top politician.
“If China loses confidence that it can work with the KMT to promote reunification, pressure may build on the mainland to invade or to compel Taiwan to enter into political talks,” Glaser told Al Jazeera.
Amid the rising tensions, the US stepped up support for Taiwan, approving more than $5bn in arms, including drones, missiles and artillery, while also lobbying for Taipei’s inclusion in the World Health Organization’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly.
Washington also sent its secretary of health to Taipei in August, marking the highest-level visit by a US official in 40 years.
Beijing has warned the US against boosting support for Taiwan, with Foreign Minister Wang Wenbin saying Taiwan was the “most important and sensitive issue in Sino-US relations”.
‘Free-fall’ in US-China relations
The pandemic, as well as US criticism of Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong and Taiwan resulted in a sharp deterioration of ties between the US and China.
In August, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd warned in an op-ed for the Foreign Affairs magazine that the world was now confronting the “prospect of not just a new Cold War, but a hot one as well”.
The year, however, had started on a positive note with Washington and Beijing signing a Phase One trade deal and ending a two-year trade war.
But relations quickly plummeted after the COVID-19 outbreak, with Trump repeatedly referring to the virus as the “Chinese virus” and blaming China’s initial cover-up in Wuhan for the spread of the disease globally. The US leader also cut funding to the WHO, faulting the global health body for what he called bias towards China.
While boosting support for Taiwan and sanctioning the Chinese officials responsible for the crackdowns in Hong Kong and the far-western region of Xinjiang, Trump also made China a key focus of his unsuccessful re-election campaign this year. In a July speech, his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that 50 years of engagement with the the Communist Party of China (CPC) had failed, saying Washington and its allies must use “more creative and assertive ways” to press “Frankenstein” China to change its ways.
Since then, in tit-for-tat measures the two sides have expelled journalists and closed the other’s consulates.
The Trump administration also moved on the technology front, ordering bans on the Chinese mobile applications TikTok and WeChat and forcing the Chinese owner of TikTok to sell its operations to a US company – all on national security grounds.
“The cascading free fall in US-China relations is awash with danger, as chances for escalation or miscalculation rise to flood-water levels,” Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an investment banker and author, told the Chinese state-owned tabloid Global Times last week. “Political wisdom is needed urgently for avoiding further exacerbation and escalation, which would only harm both countries and the world as a whole.”
The election of incoming President Joe Biden, a Democrat, could help cool tensions, analysts say. But the US’s tough policies appear unlikely to change given bipartisan support for the measures in the US Congress.
“Trump represents immediate danger. Biden represents long-term danger,” said Einar Tangen, a political analyst based in Beijing. “But Chinese officials are hoping that, at least on the economic and also on the military front, that there won’t be the kind of aggressive posturing that you had from Trump – with the increased freedom of navigation patrols through the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, and in their view, advocating insurrection in Xinjiang, Taiwan and Hong Kong.”
Despite China’s “tough year” on the international stage, Tangen told Al Jazeera, Chinese officials were facing the new year “feeling much more confident” in their political system. That’s due to China’s economic recovery and its success in containing COVID-19.
Deadly brawl on China-India border
This year also saw the first fatal confrontation between Chinese and Indian troops in more than three decades.
At least 20 Indian soldiers died in the brawl in a remote Himalayan valley, where the two countries are competing to build infrastructure along a disputed border. Chinese state media acknowledged casualties on its side but did not provide details.
The standoff, triggered amid accusations of intrusion over the Line of Control (LoC), continues.
Each side has sent tens of thousands of troops to the region, while India has tightened rules for investments from China and banned more than 150 China-linked apps, including TikTok, citing security concerns.
New Delhi also invited Australia to participate in Indian Ocean exercises along with US and Japanese navies – a move analysts see as part of a bid to boost defence ties to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
“2020 may well be the year when romanticism about Sino-Indian ties finally died,” wrote Harsh V Pant, director of research at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, in the Foreign Policy magazine this week.
“[Beijing’s] behaviour will inevitably alter the trajectory of the Chinese-Indian relationship, which has been premised on an understanding that even as the boundary questions remain unresolved, the two nations can move forward on other areas of engagement – global, regional, and bilateral. That fundamental tenet today stands seriously undermined.”
He added: “If a lasting solution to the border problem is not found, therefore, greater turbulence along the LoC will continue to be the new normal.”
‘Worst sustained deterioration’ in China-Australia ties
Chinese-Australian ties also plummeted to their lowest in decades this year, with Beijing slapping sanctions on billions of dollars of Australian imports as tensions over defence, trade and foreign policy disputes boiled over.
Australia, which was the first country to ban Chinese tech giant Huawei, angered China this year by calling for an inquiry into the origins of the new coronavirus and by taking part in the Indian Ocean military drills (Beijing calls the informal alliance between US, India, Japan and Australia the “Asian version of NATO”).
China responded by curbing Australian beef imports and levying tariffs totalling 80.5 percent on Australian barley. It also imposed tariffs worth 200 percent on Australian wine, cut imports of Australian copper by half and stalled coal shipments.
With China accounting for about 35 percent of Australia’s total trade, some experts fear an all-out trade war could cost the latter 6 percent of its gross domestic product or GDP. In contrast, Australia accounts for less than 4 percent of China’s commerce.
Earlier this month, Australia filed a formal appeal at the World Trade Organization over Beijing’s decision to impose tariffs on Australian barley.
Herve Lemahieu, director of the power and diplomacy programme at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, called the row “the worst sustained deterioration in bilateral ties between China and Australia” since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1972.
China’s hard crackdown on Australia could serve as “as a means of making an example, and trying to deter others from pursuing a similar kind of hard line,” he told Al Jazeera.
But China’s coercive diplomacy in places like Australia and Taiwan means the country has emerged from the pandemic “diplomatically diminished,” said Lemahieu.
“And I think it’s really been a squandered opportunity, a squandered year for China. It still has supporters, but it has far more detractors than it had at the beginning of the year.”