China is becoming increasingly assertive in the region as the coronavirus crisis eases on the mainland while raging elsewhere in the world, with a crackdown in Hong Kong and sabre-rattling around Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
The U.S. State Department said China was taking advantage of the region’s focus on the pandemic to “coerce its neighbours”.
In a significant strike against democracy activists in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, police in the city arrested 15 people on Saturday, just days after a senior Beijing official called for the local government to introduce national security legislation “as soon as possible.”
The arrests drew a strong rebuke from the United States and Britain.
China has also been flying regular fighter patrols near Chinese-claimed Taiwan, to the island’s anger, and has sent a survey ship flanked by coast guard and other vessels into the South China Sea, prompting the United States to accuse Beijing of “bullying behaviour.”
“Now that the domestic coronavirus outbreak has been stabilised, China wants to send an important signal to the world that its military and foreign affairs, previously put on hold, are back on track,” said Cheng Xiaohe, associate professor of international politics at Beijing’s Renmin University.
China describes Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea as its most sensitive territorial issues.
The most dramatic actions have been close to Taiwan, the self-ruled island China claims as its own. Beijing has been angered by moves by President Tsai Ing-wen during the outbreak to assert the island’s separate identity from China.
In the latest uptick in tensions, China’s navy this month sailed a battle group, led by the country’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, around Taiwan’s east coast and has mounted regular air force drills near the island.
Lo Chih-cheng, a senior legislator with Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said China was showing that its military power had not been affected by the virus and that things had returned to normal.