By Chun Han Wong 

China arguably weathered the chaos of 2020 better than any other major power. In the months ahead, its leader, Xi Jinping, appears ready to press his advantage, taking on the new Biden administration and projecting a confident Communist Party in its centennial year.

Mr. Xi and his lieutenants have struck a buoyant tone in recent weeks, trumpeting their professed success last year in containing the coronavirus and eliminating rural poverty. They have portrayed China as a responsible power, offering steady leadership amid a global economic pullback and rising geopolitical tensions that they blame on U.S. belligerence. Signs of a healthy recovery in the world's second-largest economy have given Mr. Xi a stronger hand in dealings with countries still struggling with the pandemic and its economic fallout.

While President-elect Joe Biden has signaled plans to rally multilateral efforts to check China on issues ranging from trade to human rights, Mr. Xi has sought to offset any U.S. pressure with his own diplomatic wins. Since Mr. Biden's electoral victory in November, China has anchored a new 15-nation Asia-Pacific trade pact and struck an investment deal with the European Union -- overriding concerns from the incoming Biden administration.

China nonetheless faces weighty challenges at home and abroad. Many nations are growing wary about the superpower's aggressive foreign policy. Its investment pact with Europe has yet to be ratified. And it must overcome the pandemic's long-term economic fallout and widening doubts about the efficacy of Chinese vaccines that officials have hoped can win global hearts and minds.

Beijing has shown no sign of backing down. In a reflection of its confidence, Mr. Xi's administration has asserted control along his country's periphery, launching mass arrests of opposition figures in Hong Kong this month, while flying high-frequency warplane sorties near the island democracy of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory.

"I think we're going to see a more defiant China," says Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "A China that is not only more aggressive, but also feels more and more justified in its aggression."

A new tone

At the same time, China has expressed hope that Mr. Biden can usher in a calmer phase in bilateral relations, which have frayed dramatically as the Trump administration jousted with Beijing on trade, technology, the Covid-19 pandemic and a range of other issues.

In a recent state-media interview, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged the Biden administration to "restore normalcy to bilateral relations" and pledged to shape an international environment that's favorable to China's interests. "The year 2021 will be of historic significance to China's national rejuvenation," he said.

"China holds a relatively advantageous position," capable of fending off U.S. pressure while winning international support by providing economic support and vaccines, says Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University. In contrast, "Biden would be running a somewhat weak government. He must first tackle the domestic pandemic, manage an economic recovery and resolve racial tensions."

While rocky relations with the U.S. remain a risk for China, Mr. Biden would likely be more discerning in his efforts to pressure Beijing, compared with Mr. Trump, says Mr. Wu, reflecting a view commonly expressed within China's foreign-policy circles. "This year, Beijing has more self-confidence....Biden has come back, but the U.S. can't make a comeback."

Some analysts say China's confidence could herald more forceful efforts to assert its interests, from suppressing anti-Communist Party dissent in restive areas to flexing its military muscle to assert territorial claims.

In Hong Kong, authorities have conducted sweeping arrests of politicians, activists and lawyers linked to the city's pro-democracy movement -- ignoring criticism from U.S. and European governments.

Mr. Xi has also tightened his grip on China's armed forces, following legislative changes last month that vested more decision-making powers in the military commission that Mr. Xi chairs, rather than the civilian government. In an annual order issued in early January, Mr. Xi reiterated demands that the military be ready to wage war "at any time."

Analysts say one potential flashpoint is Taiwan, which Beijing has vowed to assimilate, by force if necessary. The Chinese military has conducted an intensifying array of aerial sorties, naval maneuvers and invasion drills near the island over the past year.

Chinese warplanes flew 380 sorties into the island's southwestern air-defense identification zone in 2020, and more than a dozen have taken place so far this year, according to Taiwan's Defense Ministry. The frequency and intensity of such flights have increased significantly over recent years, up from the 20 long-range flights that Chinese aircraft conducted near Taiwan in 2017, Taipei's Institute for National Defense and Security Research said in a December report.

Beijing wants to "make these types of operations routine" so that "everyone would just accept this increased presence," says Ms. Mastro, the Stanford fellow.

No sure thing

Even so, Beijing still faces significant risks to its interests.

Mr. Xi's hard-nosed diplomacy "has created a de facto global coalition of concern with Chinese behavior," says Bilahari Kausikan, a retired senior Singaporean diplomat. "Nobody will ever shun China, but every major economy will deal with China with greater caution and reserve."

U.S.-China relations will remain a key concern for Beijing, with the Biden administration likely to bring a more orderly and methodical approach to dealing with China on issues spanning economics, security, technology and human rights, Mr. Kausikan says.

China's investment agreement with Europe still faces a ratification process across EU member governments and the European legislature. "Is this the time to be cutting deals with China? I think it shows geopolitical [naiveté] instead of geostrategic autonomy," Guy Verhofstadt, a member of the European Parliament and former Belgian prime minister, wrote on Twitter this month. "Thankfully, unlike China, the EU is a democracy & the [European Parliament] will have the final say!"

Diplomatic spats over perceived culpability for the Covid-19 pandemic, which first emerged in central China, appear likely to continue, especially after the World Health Organization criticized China this month for holding up the entry of investigators sent to probe the origins of the coronavirus. Beijing has since granted entry to a team of WHO experts, who arrived Thursday in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

Beijing's efforts to win goodwill by supplying or donating Chinese vaccines to developing countries would likely be hampered by a widening "credibility gap," particularly after new trial data showed that a vaccine developed by Chinese firm Sinovac was much less effective than previously believed, says Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

China also confronts a world that appears less receptive to its overtures. The Pew Research Center, in survey results published in October, found public perceptions of China souring significantly in the U.S. and 13 other developed economies over the previous year, largely due to Beijing's perceived mishandling of the initial Covid-19 outbreak.

Mr. Wu, the Fudan University professor, plays down these findings, pointing to Beijing's Asia-Pacific trade pact and EU investment deal. "We don't need to worry too much about public opinion," Mr. Wu says. "National interests are the most important factor."

Mr. Wong is a Wall Street Journal reporter in Hong Kong. He can be reached at chunhan.wong@wsj.com.

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 15, 2021 16:14 ET (21:14 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.