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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Mr. Wong is a Wall Street Journal reporter in Hong Kong. He can
be reached at email@example.com.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 15, 2021 16:14 ET (21:14 GMT)
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