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Since COVID-19 disrupted Beijing’s plans for economic strength and global prestige, it has increasingly turned to military force and devastating diplomacy

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A masked security guard keeps watch at Beijing's Great Hall of the People on May 28, the concluding day of a session of the National People's Congress. It was at this session that China's President voted in favour of a draft security law for Hong Kong that has drawn international condemnation for limiting the Chinese territory's independence.Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

In mid-April, in the midst of the deadliest virus outbreak of modern times, China’s foreign minister published a sunny note in the Communist Party’s main theoretical magazine, Qiushi. By the time the pandemic is over, Wang Yi wrote, “friendship between China and the world will be stronger and co-operation between China and the world will be more solid.”

There isn’t much evidence things have worked out that way.

Instead, Chinese diplomats, lawmakers and armed forces have been pressed into a series of conflicts that span the world, raising tensions between Beijing and those outside its borders, particularly in Western countries, in ways not seen for decades.

China has provoked anger by rushing to impose a new national-security law on Hong Kong, prompting Canada, the United States, Britain and Australia to accuse Beijing of violating its international treaty obligations.

China has slapped new economic retaliation on Australia – barring imports of barley and beef – after Canberra called for an independent investigation of the novel coronavirus origins.

Chinese vessels have shown new aggression in the South China Sea, ramming and sinking a Vietnamese boat and stalking an oil-drilling ship working in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone.

In the Himalayas, Chinese troops have physically brawled with Indian soldiers, sending men to hospital in a military confrontation over an unsettled border whose scope and scale are unprecedented in recent decades.

In Europe, Chinese diplomats have been dragged in for official reprimands after they publicly disparaged governments and journalists alike. Beijing’s tensions with Washington continue to grow.

And it continues to keep as prisoners Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians detained after the extradition arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, an act widely described as hostage diplomacy.

In many parts of the world, “their stock is at an all-time low,” said Vishnu Prakash, a foreign-policy analyst who previously served as India’s ambassador to Canada and consul-general to Shanghai. “It’s not a trade war. It’s much more than that.”

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Protesters in 2019 hold signs calling for the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.Lindsey Wasson/Reuters/Reuters

None of the fault lines are new, and China has argued that it is doing nothing beyond defending its own interests and sovereignty. But the confluence of disputes and the intensity of China’s conduct has brought to the fore a Beijing that critics call truculent, militaristic, retaliatory and dismissive of global norms.

The pandemic has opened a particularly clear glimpse into a country whose leaders are motivated by a belief that “Chinese wisdom” should guide the world, that no affront to China’s national dignity can be countenanced and that their country’s economic size and importance deserves global respect.

”China’s fundamental quest is to revive Chinese civilization and to create a strong China that can no longer be humiliated by the world,” said Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat and author. The Communist Party of China regularly talks about being abreast of a transformation in the global order not seen in a century, as it enjoyed nearly uninterrupted growth, from 1979 to 2019. Those “have been the best 40 years in 4,000 years of Chinese history,” Mr. Mahbubani said.

Communist Party theoreticians have revelled in the country’s new status. In a fractured world, China is “the maintainer of the international order,” Gao Zugui, deputy director with the Institute for International Strategic Studies at the Central Party School of the Communist Party, wrote this January in Study Times, which is published by that school.

China’s economic advances have been the guarantor of global growth, making the country “a ballast stone and stabilizer for the international situation,” Ma Xiaojun, another scholar at that school, wrote in Study Times in January. But the virus has eroded that confidence. “COVID-19 has become the big disruptor. It has thrown a spanner into China’s plans,” Mr. Mahbubani said. “If the global economy is not growing, China’s economy cannot grow. It’s very simple.”

Now, an uncomfortable uncertainty in the ambitions of China’s Communist Party elders has altered the country’s domestic priorities – and shifted its posture toward neighbours, trading partners and rivals alike.

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At May 28's legislature meeting, Mr. Xi reaches to vote for the Hong Kong security law.Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

For years, Western liberal thinkers have embraced the idea of an Asian century, one where a rising China creates new wealth and contributes fresh solutions to global problems. China has in some ways delivered on both of those fronts: Its economy has driven nearly a third of the world’s growth in recent years, and its negotiators have played constructive roles in confronting international issues such as climate change.

But Beijing’s ambitions to carve out a major leadership role for itself and its state-backed corporate giants has also brought it into a deepening conflict with Washington and U.S. allies, one further exacerbated by the global dislocations in the wake of the virus spread from an initial outbreak inside China’s borders.

Outside China, Beijing has faced blame for covering up the early days of the virus. At home, it faces the weakest economy in decades, with a sharp contraction GDP earlier this year and widespread joblessness that central planners are struggling to manage.

Threatened from without and within, President Xi Jinping wants “to project strength and resolve to a domestic audience” while demonstrating “a sense of iron will on matters of territorial integrity,” said Ryan Hass, the former director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the U.S. National Security Council who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Beijing, he said, “has concluded that Washington is locked into efforts to challenge China and obstruct its rise. Xi sees little to be gained with the U.S. or others by moderating on foreign policy, and much to be risked domestically by doing so.”

The result: “Their response to those circumstances is to lash out, bully, browbeat and try to cow other countries into not challenging or criticizing China,” said M. Taylor Fravel, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholar who studies China’s military strategy.

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Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, chats with the Defence Minister at the May 28 congress session.Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters/Reuters

Mr. Wang, the foreign minister who once accused a reporter in Ottawa of “prejudice against China and arrogance,” has given that policy his full backing.

“We never pick a fight,” he said this Sunday. “But we have principles and guts. We will push back against any deliberate insult to resolutely defend our national honour and dignity.” (In his April article, Mr. Wang also cited Friedrich Engels, the German communist philosopher, who once wrote: “There is no great historical evil without a compensating historical progress.”)

None of this has done China any favours across much of the West.

Public opinion toward China is negative in every Group of Seven country, and in some it is falling fast. In Canada and the U.S., distaste for China is the strongest it has been in decades, with just 14 per cent of Canadian adults polled holding a positive opinion.

Such sentiment has poisoned the waters for Chinese companies and people in those countries. Germany and France have erected new barriers to Chinese investment. Britain has grown skeptical toward Huawei as a provider of 5G technology. The U.S. is moving to bar students from military-affiliated universities and sanction Chinese officials over human-rights abuses.

On Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump pledged new measures to frustrate China’s economic ambition and global influence, saying he will end Hong Kong’s special trade arrangement in the wake of Beijing’s new national-security measures on the territory. He also said that the U.S. would cut ties to the World Health Organization because it was under “total control” of China and was pressed to “mislead the world” on the virus.

China’s aggressive strategy around the world “backfires by harming perceptions of China’s image in countries where China wants to gain influence,” Prof. Fravel said. “And I think that’s strategically counterproductive.”

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Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian gives a news briefing in Beijing.Andy Wong/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

For its part, China has sought to pin blame on others, faulting the U.S. for sowing division as it warns about the global damages that could be incurred by a looming Cold War. On Friday, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian mused about Washington reviving “the notorious McCarthyism all over again.”

China openly accuses the U.S. of seeking to constrain its rise, a conclusion that has set the country in opposition to not just Washington, but to those capitals that maintain friendly ties with the U.S., Canada among them. “The U.S. intent is to bring down Huawei and other Chinese high-tech companies, and Canada has been acting as an accomplice of the U.S.,” Mr. Zhao charged Friday.

But Beijing’s own conduct has hastened the international cleavage, in a fundamental shift in how the country assesses its place in the world, said Christopher Johnson, a former senior China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the U.S. Even half a decade ago, he said China listened “to the views of Canada and other middle powers – in part because of its efforts to create a multipolar world.”

Now, “they increasingly see the world as split into two camps,” he said. And there is “really only one country in the world that can even attempt to push back without immediate negative consequences. And that’s the United States.”

But anger against China is far from universal, and Beijing’s assertive agenda has seen as many successes as failures.

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A masked People's Liberation Army soldier gestures to a photographer to stop taking pictures in front of the Great Hall of the People as the congress meets on May 25.Roman Pilipey/Pool Photo via AP/The Associated Press

In October, 2019, a drilling ship named the West Capella took position on the fringes of Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone and began to probe the depths for hydrocarbons, under contract to energy giant Petronas. The waters where the West Capella began to work lie in the South China Sea, the body of water that borders much of Southeast Asia but which is claimed almost in its entirety by China. Vietnam, too, has a competing claim in the area.

But as the West Capella drilled, it was stalked by a small flotilla of Chinese ships that included heavily armed Chinese coast guard ships and other vessels believed to belong to the Chinese maritime militia. As they moved around the area, the Chinese ships came “dangerously close to the rig and supply vessels,” the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said, calling it a campaign of “high-risk intimidation.”

In late April, the U.S. Navy responded, dispatching ships to the area. To those watching from afar, it was a forceful repudiation of China. The U.S. “strongly opposes China’s bullying and we hope other nations will hold them to account, too,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the time.

Malaysia had already been notable for its reticence toward China. In 2018, then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad cancelled a massive Chinese-backed rail project, calling its debt-heavy terms “unfair.” He urged others to do the same, publicly warning the Philippines last spring that countries like it should ”regulate or limit influences from China.”

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Mahathir Mohamad, who is currently challenging his ouster as Malaysia's prime minister, cancelled a Chinese-backed rail venture in 2018.The Associated Press/The Associated Press

But for some in Malaysia, what was notable about the West Capella incident was not that U.S. Navy ships arrived. It was, instead, that they left so quickly, remaining only a few days before sailing elsewhere. Chinese vessels, on the other hand, remained for months.

“The Chinese, they stick around. They don’t leave,” said Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies.

“There is already the suspicion that if push comes to shove, if things get too hot, the Americans are not going to stay. And therefore, you will have to deal with China eventually,” he said.

It’s not just the West Capella. After Mr. Mahathir rejected the rail project, China renegotiated and cut the price by a third. Construction is now continuing. Shortly after that deal was made, Mr. Mahathir opened his arms to Huawei saying, “we try to make use of their technology as much as possible.”

For Malaysia, Mr. Lockman said, China has shown many faces. “The generous one. The coercive one. The flexible negotiating partner.” It has meant that in the broader contest for influence between the U.S. and China, he said, “China is winning.”

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Police deter a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong's Mong Kok district on May 27.ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Beijing has achieved similar results elsewhere. Take the decision this week to impose new national-security legislation on Hong Kong, which has raised international fury as critics – Canada included – denounce China for abrogating the high degree of autonomy that has allowed the city to maintain unique civil liberties after its handover from Britain. In Hong Kong, democracy advocates lament a looming death blow to the city’s freedoms.

But it’s far from certain that the new law will spell the death of the city’s vitality as a financial centre. “I don’t think this is going to drive the banks from Hong Kong,” said Ken Courtis, the chairman of Starfort Holdings, who is former vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs. “Banks, they’re pretty unsentimental institutions. They’re mostly interested in one colour, it’s green.”

For those managing money, the idea of remaining on China’s doorstep is unlikely to lose its lustre, Mr. Courtis said.

“Global investors on the whole probably think it was a good idea to have invested in the Dutch empire as it was rising in the 16th century, a good idea to have invested in the British Empire as it was developing in the 18th century and in the U.S. at the beginning of the last century,” he said.

Hong Kong’s leaders share that confidence. “Honestly, the majority of people in Hong Kong don’t care about the national-security law,” said Bernard Chan, a close adviser to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. “What matters to them is day-to-day law – the law to protect their interests, their right and financial interests and legal documents.”

In national-security matters, meanwhile, the new law will hold “Hong Kong to the same standard as China,” Mr. Chan said. For the large number of companies in the city who also do business on the Chinese mainland, “unless they decide not to do business in China, there’s no point in leaving Hong Kong.”

Even in Australia, waning public sentiment has left China’s economic interests unharmed. Last year, a poll showed that the percentage of people who say they trust China plunged by 20 points. That same year, trade between the two countries rose by 20.5 per cent.

When it commands such respect on balance sheets and purchase orders, “China doesn’t need to win hearts and minds in Canada or Australia or the U.K.,” said Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat to China who is now a research fellow with the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based international policy think tank.

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A crowd in Vancouver demonstrates at a May 27 court hearing for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

In many of those country’s capitals, nonetheless, fears of China’s rising influence have prompted searching questions about how to respond. The White House has sought to force Beijing to change course through punitive measures, while advocating greater independence from China’s manufacturing capacity, a kind of industrial decoupling. The British government is attempting to build a new club of democracies, the D10 alliance, that can work together to provide alternatives to Chinese technology, particularly in 5G mobile networks.

Others see value in adopting that approach to press China to change.

“The rise of China is a certainty. China cannot be contained, it is futile,” said Mr. Prakash, the former Indian diplomat. “The way forward is that like-minded countries have to come together to stake out a common position and make it clear to China that the community of nations expects China to go by the book and follow international norms.”

Ms. Kassam advocates an approach that begins by recognizing that conflict with Beijing is likely to increase along with its rising global stature and willingness to defend its global interests.

“I don’t know how much we can deter China from that behaviour,” she said. Better, she said, to opt for sangfroid over sanctions.

Beijing seeks to get its way using coercion. What it is doing today against India, Australia and Canada, it has done previously to other countries, including Norway, South Korea and the Philippines.

In all of those cases, “there were definitely hard-hit industries,” Ms. Kassam said. “But in no case was an economy brought to its knees,” she said.

“So I think we have to focus on what’s in our control. And that is domestic resilience to coercion.”

With reporting by Alexandra Li

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Officials applaud Mr. Xi at the May 28 congress session.NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

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