- Crisis in US-China relationship: the balloon scandal
- China’s technology export to Russia and the dynamics of bilateral relations
- Post-pandemic mutual visits between Taiwanese and Chinese officials
- Attitudes of Southeast Asian countries towards the war in Ukraine
- Increased projection of US power in the South China Sea
- Czech President Petr Pavel’s phone call with the President of Taiwan
- Sino–German competition for South America’s lithium
- China’s use of a military-grade laser against a Philippine Coast Guard vessel
China review 2023-1
1. Crisis in US-China relationship: the balloon scandal
Despite the recent signs of warming, the bilateral relationship between China and the United States has fallen into a new crisis. Recent tensions have been caused by a suspected espionage case: from January 28 to February 4, a Chinese-owned high-altitude balloon was spotted in US airspace and was ultimately shot down by the US Air Force.
At first, China expressed regret for the “unintended entry” of the balloon into US airspace, but the rhetoric changed radically after the US’s decision to shoot down the unmanned airship. After the object was eliminated by order of the US President on February 4, the Chinese government was angry because of the “unlawful actions”. On February 5, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng lodged official representations, stressing that “the entry of the strayed Chinese unmanned civilian airship into US airspace is a purely unexpected accident caused by force majeure” and condemned the US for “an apparent act of overreaction and a serious violation of the spirit of international law and international practice.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, responding to the situation, cancelled his planned visit to China. Commenting on the decision, Beijing stated: “In actuality, the US and China have never announced any visit, the US making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that.”
During eight days, the US Air Force destroyed four flying objects over the US and Canada. The issue of spy balloons stirred up other countries as well. On February 15, the Japanese government said that the unidentified flying objects spotted over the nation’s territory from 2019 are “strongly suspected” to have been Chinese spy balloons. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin, responding to Japan’s statements, said that “Japan needs to be objective and impartial on this instead of following the US’s suit in dramatizing it”. During a joint news conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on February 8, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that balloon espionage has been taking place over all the continents during the past few years. In turn, Beijing also did not miss the opportunity to accuse the US of espionage. On February 16, China claimed that US balloons had flown over its airspace without permission more than 10 times over the regions of Tibet and Xinjiang since May 2022.
Although the Chinese state media covered the scandal-related events with extreme criticism and emphasized that Washington’s overreacted, the mood in Chinese society was somewhat more cheerful. The “Wandering Balloon” was widely discussed on Chinese social media, with some commentators joking that the aircraft resembled a glutinous rice ball, a traditional food eaten during the Chinese Lantern Festival. This led some netizens to quip that the balloon was intended to wish Americans a happy Lantern Festival, which this year fell on February 5.
However, both countries are already showing initial signs of their desire to de-escalate the situation. On February 16, US President Joe Biden said: “I expect to be speaking with President Xi, and I hope we have a — we are going to get to the bottom of this [balloon scandal]”. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and PRC State Councillor and Director of the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Office Wang Yi met on the margins of the Munich Security Conference on February 18. They discussed not only the balloon scandal, but also the war in Ukraine.
2. China’s technology export to Russia and the dynamics of bilateral relations
On February 4, The Wall Street Journal published an article, claiming that China aids Russia’s war in Ukraine. According to Ian Talley and Anthony DeBarros, Russian customs records show that China is providing technological aid to Russia’s military industry despite international sanctions. Russia imported navigation equipment, signal jamming technology and jet-fighter parts from China. Responding to the news, Shu Jueting, a spokesperson of the Ministry of Commerce of China, assured that “China has always required enterprises to strictly abide by China’s laws and regulations …, so as to ensure that the relevant exports are in line with China’s national security interests and international obligations.”
The international community has been closely monitoring China’s actions and the dynamics of its relations with Russia. There are still no signs of Beijing’s desire to clearly distance itself from Russia’s war against Ukraine. From February 2 to 3, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu paid a visit to Moscow and met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In the conversation, it was emphasized that this year both countries expect “new progress” in strengthening bilateral relations and maintaining close communication and coordination in international and regional issues. The meeting between Xi and Putin anticipated this spring “will be the central event for the bilateral relationship in 2023”, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on January 30. Beijing has not given any hints about the planned meeting so far.
3. Post-pandemic mutual visits between Taiwanese and Chinese officials
On February 8, a delegation of the Nationalist Party Kuomintang (KMT) of the Republic of China (Taiwan), led by KMT Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia, arrived in China for an official 9-day visit. It included meetings with Wang Huning, member of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, Song Tao, director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, and other high-level politicians. During the visit, the delegation made stops in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and other cities. While the Kuomintang is of the opinion that there is the need for closer relations with China, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) adheres to a far more cautious position. Before the meeting, the Taiwanese government issued warning to the opposition party that accepting any agreements with Beijing would adversely affect the island’s interests.
On February 18, a delegation of six Chinese officials led by Liu Xiaodong arrived in Taiwan to attend the Lantern Festival in Taipei, at the invitation of the city government. This is the first post-pandemic visit by Chinese officials to the island after a three-year break. Although official bilateral dialogue almost ceased since President Tsai Ing-wen took office, city-to-city cooperation continued to be maintained. In the past three years, the Shanghai-Taipei City Forum (founded in 2010) held its annual conference remotely.
4. Attitudes of Southeast Asian countries towards the war in Ukraine
A survey research published in January by the Ipsos Institute for the Study of War Conference showed significant differences in the attitudes of Western countries and Southeast Asia towards the war in Ukraine. In the region, the attitude is still relatively lukewarm: for example, the share of the respondents who agreed with the statement “The problems of Ukraine are none of our business, and we should not interfere” was 54% in Malaysia, 60% in Thailand, 48% in Indonesia, and 44% in Singapore. The attitude toward sanctions is also significantly different from that of people the West: in contrast to Western countries, positive attitudes toward sanctions in the Southeast Asian region do not exceed the threshold of 50%. According to Ian Storey, “similarly to the context of competition between the US and China, the region wants to maintain good relations with both the US and Russia, avoid being embroiled in their rivalry, and maintain strategic autonomy.” Nevertheless, national elections to be held this year in Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar could be complicated: growing public pressure due to the deteriorating economic situation could influence the countries’ stance on the war in Ukraine.
5. Increased projection of US power in the South China Sea
In early February, the Philippines and the United States announced that they took steps to expand the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with U.S. access to four bases in the Philippines. Until now, the US has operated five bases in the Philippines, and the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the US, signed in 1951, is the oldest bilateral agreement with the US in the region.
The move will allow the US to gain a stronger foothold in the southeastern part of the South China Sea, which is crucial to US plans to increase its military influence in the Indo-Pacific region. It is also seen as an additional deterrent that could ease tensions between China and the Philippines over remaining territorial disputes. Also, this move will have a significant influence on Taiwan’s security, as the distance from the bases in the Philippines to the island is only about 300 km.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted critically to this news and accused the US: “The US side, out of selfish interests, holds on to the zero-sum mentality and keeps strengthening military deployment in the Asia-Pacific.” The Ministry added that “This would escalate tensions and endanger peace and stability in the region. Regional countries need to remain vigilant and avoid being coerced or used by the US.”
6. Czech President Petr Pavel’s phone call with the President of Taiwan
Petr Pavel, the newly elected president of the Czech Republic, which has been increasingly signalling its desire to develop closer relations with Taiwan, broke the established diplomatic taboo and talked to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen by phone on January 30. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted extremely critically and assessed this action as “a move that constituted official contact with the Taiwan authorities and… a blatant violation of… the one-China principle”. It assured that the move would have an extremely negative impact on the development of the bilateral China–Czech Republic relations. President Tsai’s public statement about a phone conversation with the leader of another country that does not officially recognize Taiwan is an extremely rare event: the last time, such a conversation took place with the then newly elected US President Donald Trump in 2016.
7. Sino–German competition for South America’s lithium
On January 28, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz kicked off a four-day visit to Argentina, Chile and Brazil. The main goal of the visit is to strengthen economic ties with South American countries, which have extremely significant reserves of rare metal resources. These reserves include lithium, one of the most important metals in the production of electric cars. Germany’s main competitor for this metal is China, which processes lithium imported from South Americaand sells it to Germany and other countries of the world. Therefore, one of the main goals of Scholtz was to convince the countries of the region that Germany is seriously interested in the possibility of actively contributing to the development of the lithium industry, especially lithium processing in these countries, and thus potentially reducing dependence on China.
Competition in the semiconductor sector is also pushing China to seek self-sufficiency even more actively. On January 31, the US acknowledged the existence of a tripartite between the US, Japan and the Netherlands on semiconductors. The main purpose of the agreement is to impose additional restrictions on exports of chipmaking technology to China. However, no specific details and mechanisms of how this will be implemented have been made public so far.
8. China’s use of a military-grade laser against a Philippine Coast Guard vessel
On February 6, a dangerous incident occurred between Chinese and Philippine vessels in the South China Sea. According to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel undertook dangerous manoeuvres against a Philippine Coast Guard vessel and used military-grade laser on its crew members in the vicinity of Ayungin Shoal. On February 14, Manila released a diplomatic protest to the Chinese Embassy over China’s unlawful actions in the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
This is not a rare incident: due to the historical territorial disputes between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea, dangerous collisions occur quite often. Ayungin Shoal, currently controlled by the Philippine military, is one of the main epicentres of this conflict over Beijing’s claims to these territories. In 2016, the Philippines achieved an extremely significant victory in international institutions: the Permanent Court of Arbitration declared that China’s actions against the Philippines in the South China Sea violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China did not participate in the proceedings and still does not accept this decision.