Has COVID-19 Changed How China’s Leaders Approach National Security?

Has COVID-19 Changed How China’s Leaders Approach National Security?

  • China’s first home-built aircraft carrier sets out for sea trials from a port in Dalian

While the world is reeling from the cascading shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic, China has continued a comparatively aggressive course in its foreign policy and security posture. Not only has it continued military and paramilitary activities in the South and East China Sea, including exercises around Taiwan, but actions have increased. China’s outreach efforts, including offers of medical supplies and advice, have at times been accompanied not only by vitriolic statements and dubious alternative pandemic origin stories from its Foreign Ministry officials and state media, but also by the leveraging of trade relations with the EU to censor criticism of these statements, as well as trade actions—official and unofficial—against Australian beef and barley imports in response to Canberra’s push for more transparency on China’s initial handling of the outbreak.

Even as China specialists have cautioned that Chinese Communist Party diplomats, under Xi Jinping, are abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s long-held formula of “hiding strength and biding time,” the uptick of confrontational activities in this politically, economically, and socially turbulent period has drawn fierce pushback from the U.S.; officials and foreign policy experts accuse China of taking advantage of the pandemic distraction to conduct provocations and reshape the global order while the resources and attention of other countries remain focused on managing simultaneous public health and economic crises.

China’s leaders have often viewed their ability to achieve internal development goals as dependent on a benign external security environment, describing the lead-up to 2020 as a “period of strategic opportunity” to rise without constraint or distraction. Xi Jinping argued in 2014 that Beijing would need smart diplomacy to build on this opportunity. But while the economic fallout of the COVID-19 outbreak has curtailed Beijing’s domestic policy goals, China’s leaders are not pursuing a more conciliatory approach to the country’s neighbors. China’s recent activities also defy arguments that Beijing actively seeks to improve relations with neighbors in periods of domestic crisis or international pressure—both conditions that are observable today.