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Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

In October, 2017, Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivered an hours-long address at a Communist Party congress in which he made a key prediction: that China would move “closer to centre stage” in the world.

Today, China is close to dominating the world stage. Recent global matters all see China deeply involved, even when its name isn’t mentioned.

Consider Afghanistan. When the United States withdrew after 20 years of war, who did the Taliban think of as their likely supporter? Why, China of course.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen hailed China as Afghanistan’s “great neighbour.” The South China Morning Post quoted Mr. Shaheen as saying that the Taliban was “ready to exchange views with China” on “mutual relations, establishing peace in the region, and its assistance in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.”

Then there’s AUKUS. On Sept. 15, Australia, Britain and the United States announced an agreement under which Australia would acquire nuclear-powered submarines. The joint announcement did not mention any other country, but there was an assumption that the move was designed to counter China’s growing influence, an assumption China evidently shared.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian denounced the accord. Among other things, he said that a regional mechanism should not target a third party.

His boss, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, has coined the term “Anglo-Saxon clique” to describe the three countries.

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Australia has been targeted by China ever since it proposed an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19. China accounts for 40 per cent of Australia’s exports, so Canberra is vulnerable to economic pressure.

China doesn’t seem to appreciate that partnerships such as AUKUS are reactions to Beijing’s rising military power and aggressive diplomacy. Instead, it depicts itself as the victim.

Another such partnership is the Quad – Australia, Japan, India and the United States – which held a summit in Washington little more than a week after the AUKUS deal.

These countries have been talking at various levels on and off since 2007. What drew them together was concern over what China was doing and what it might do in the future.

After their White House summit on Sept. 24, these four countries issued a joint statement that cited issues discussed, including distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, the climate crisis as well as mapping the region’s infrastructure needs and regional security, which have “become ever more complex.”

China did not feature in the statement. Nonetheless, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying denounced the four for “insinuating China with the so-called ‘rules-based order,’ playing up and citing the so-called ‘China threat’ theory, and driving a wedge between regional countries and China.”

The following day, Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive who had been held in Canada since December, 2018, pending extradition to the United States, made a deal with the U.S. Justice Department. She admitted to misleading HSBC about the nature of Huawei’s relationship with a company that did business in Iran and admitted that Huawei’s business dealings violated U.S. sanctions against Tehran. She was then freed.

Ms. Meng returned to a tumultuous welcome in China. Official media used her to fan nationalistic flames, saying that the Communist Party and government looked after Chinese citizens who were bullied overseas.

“It is China’s national power that shaped this final result,” China Daily editorialized. “A country will be surrounded with more troubles as it gets stronger, but only a strong country can enable us to deal with those troubles with dignity.”

Chinese media was largely silent on the plight of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were arrested within days of Ms. Meng’s detention and held on espionage charges. Widely regarded as hostages, they were released as soon as Ms. Meng was homeward bound.

Chinese officials wouldn’t say that the timing was coincidental. Instead, they are implying a prisoner swap, pointing out that the Meng case was discussed by the Chinese and U.S. presidents in their phone conversation Sept. 9. By doing so, China undermines the U.S.-Canadian position that they were operating under legal procedures.

In mid-2021, the Pew Research Center reported that China’s image in 17 advanced economies, including Canada, remained broadly negative. And this failure of Chinese soft power to change Western opinion may well have pushed Beijing to focus on shoring up the view of its national might.

As the French Military School Strategic Research Institute noted in a recent study, Beijing has taken a “self-defeating Machiavellian turn” and adopted the 16th-century political philosopher’s admonition that “it is preferable to be feared than to be loved.”

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