In light of the ongoing 2019-20 Hong Kong protests, China’s ceremonial parliament has voted to bypass Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to enact dramatic national security legislation. According to the Chinese government, these new laws are intended to crackdown on ‘secessionist and subversive activity … terrorism and foreign interference’. Beijing has previously blamed the lack of a national security law for last year’s alarming anti-extradition protests. However, activists remain concerned that these laws will undermine civil liberties and bring an end to Hong Kong’s unique partial autonomy.
Hong Kong is currently governed under a “one country, two systems” model underpinned by two key documents: The Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. These established China’s rule over Hong Kong – subject to significant caveats including the continuation of British capitalism, maintenance of the common law, protection of civil liberties and an understanding that Beijing would not directly intervene in the city for a period of 50 years from the city’s 1997 handover. Significantly, Article 23 of the Basic Law stipulates that Hong Kong shall enact national security legislation “on its own.”
While details about the application of these new security laws remain unclear, they clearly encroach upon Hong Kong’s existing autonomy from China. The ‘crimes’ stipulated in the security laws have vague definitions and could potentially include any attempts to voice dissent against the Government. Such laws may also lead to widespread arrests on arbitrary political charges, a crackdown on free speech, and the unleashing of China’s security organs, such as the Ministry of State Security and the People’s Armed Police. If these reforms are unable to bridge the divide between Hong Kongers and Beijing, then Hong Kong may remain a tinderbox of revolt for years to come.
The enactment of this legislation has prompted wide-spread criticism from international actors such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. In the United States, the Trump Administration has announced that it will no longer treat Hong Kong as being autonomous from the Chinese mainland as a result of Beijing’s latest intervention. In addition to the political ramifications, Hong Kong’s status as a financial hub is now in danger. For businesses, the main value of the city is that its financial and legal systems are more transparent and fair compared to China’s. These features make Hong Kong an attractive option for both foreign and Chinese firms looking to prove their credibility in the region. Any erosion of the rule of law and freedom of speech risks undermining this appeal.
Following US President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would strip Hong Kong of its special privileges, China’s state media have taken aim at the US by comparing #BlackLivesMatter protests with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. A commentary published in China Daily – a mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party – said US politicians should do their jobs and help solve problems in the US, instead of trying to create new problems and troubles in other countries.
Chinese attempts to equate protesting in some US cities with wide-spread calls for democracy and freedom from China in Hong Kong are disingenuous and politically-motivated. At this critical time, it is important that Western media outlets critically assess China’s claims and report them for what they are. Racial tensions in the US and Chinese interventions in Hong Kong are entirely seperate issues. Failure to recognise these clear differences and blind acceptance of CCP rhetoric plays right into Beijing’s hand and may cost the people of Hong Kong their freedom.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, John Mearsheimer articulated a bold thesis- the great-power rivalry was not over. While Mearsheimer was ignored, Covid-19 has exposed the intense Sino-American security competition that he predicted.
In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer, argued that insecurity and conflict remained inevitable structures of the anarchic international system. Further, Mearsheimer argued that as China increased in power and ambition it would become more assertive in protecting its security and prosperity depended. As the global hegemon, the US would go to great lengths to stop the rising power from dominating Asia.
Two decades ago, Realism the long-standing theory of international relations took a hit following the unexpected end to the Cold War. Theories of Liberalism and Constructivism flourished and analysed what appeared to be a new world entering an era of increased globalisation and interdependency. State rivaries and military power seemed to matter less. The prevailing wisdom was that rapid economic growth ensured the emergence of a democratic polity in China, as it had in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. China was categorised as a developing country, afforded grace for its communist rule while it “peacefully” progressed and lifted millions out of poverty. It was thought that the more China embraced global capitalism, the more likely it would integrate peacefully in the rules-based international order.
However, Mearsheimer contested such Wilsonian thinking, arguing that the brutal competition of power is a root function of the structure of the international system, a reality which has been true since the time of Thucydides. He called this the “tragic nature of great- power politics.” In an anarchical international community, without a central body to enforce rules and norms, great powers find it impossible to trust each other. The tragedy is that striving for security leads to heightened tensions, a concept known by international scholars as the ‘security dilemma.’
For Mearsheimer, the consequences were clear: by growing enchanted with the Chinese market, the world was choosing to play with fire. Far from progressing to become a responsible democratic nation, Beijing was bound to upset the strategic sensibilities of neighbouring states, from Japan and South Korea to India and Vietnam. As a result, Mearsheimer advised the US to pivot strongly in Asia, deepen security ties with its allies and develop new strategic partnerships with old foes.
Alas, after America’s Cold War victory, both Democratic and Republican administrations indulged in what Mearsheimer’s academic colleague Stephen Walt calls the “hubristic fantasy” of global “liberal hegemony”, which both scholars warned would cost the US dearly in prestige and influence. Meanwhile, China’s rise continued. The CCP advanced its defence mechanisms, developed persistent cyber-espionage and pushed nationalism supported by wide-spread propaganda. Today, China plans to forcefully takeover Hong Kong alongside its relentless intimidation of Taiwan and aggressive build-up of military islands in the South China Sea. China is now showing every possible sign of seeking to overthrow the US-led security system in the region.
We now have an important and pressing choice to make. Will the United States follow the advice of Mearsheimer and lead a coalition to pursue a containment strategy. Or, adopt an approach of “engaging and constraining” China, as former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade head Peter Varghese suggests.
The COVID pandemic has showcased a proliferation of blame, acrimony and military aggression between the United States and China. Additionally, we have witnessed the fragility of international institutions as the WHO which struggled to balance the strategic interests of China with the health of the global community. Core realist tenants of the anarchical, state-centric international order are proving relevant in the study of modern international relations.
The emergence of the COVID-19 global pandemic has inspired varying international responses from the United States and China. China severely mismanaged the outbreak of the coronavirus through censorship and denial. As precious weeks passed and the seriousness of the outbreak became apparent, officials of the Communist Party of China made extensive preparations to protect their population, while only selectively sharing information with the international community. Amid the global pandemic, the Chinese government has continued to advance its strategic ambitions in the South China Sea and has been accused by the United States government of exploiting the crisis to gain territory. On April 2, Vietnam reported a Chinese military ship deliberating sinking a Vietnamese fishing ship in the disputed territory. In March, the Chinese government commissioned two research stations with defence capabilities on maritime turf claimed by the Philippines. The US international response has differed significantly from China’s approach.
America’s democratic values and trusted institutions have enabled more accurate reporting of COVID-19 figures, this has allowed epidemiologists to develop policies to ‘flatten the curve’ and contain the virus. The US Centre for Disease control also continues to publish information that helps American citizens gain access to medical services and minimise community transmission. The US has prioritised holding China accountable for the global spread of the coronavirus and has scaled up its military presence in the South China Sea. In March, the US military conducted live-missile testing in the Philippine Sea, sending a message of deterrence to China. On March 31, President Trump announced the suspension of all US funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) due to concerns of its mismanagement of the COVID pandemic and “China-centric nature.”
Structural realists assert that the architecture of the international system forces states to compete for limited power. For this reason, cooperation within international institutions often proves fragile. The COVID pandemic provides a vivid reminder of the relevance of these realist precepts. States are fearful that cooperation may enable another state to advance their capabilities and gain greater power and influence relative to them. In this case, President Trump declared the suspension of all funds to the World Health Organisation, perceiving the benefits of US cooperation within the WHO to be waning relative to the growing influence of China. Structural realist theory also provides valuable insight into China’s behaviour within the WHO. States will engage in international institutions when they perceive opportunities to gain power relative to their competitors. President Xi Jinping of the Chinese Communist Party has established the priority to challenge the American global order by strengthening Beijing’s multilateral clout. The World Health Organisation’s response to the spread of coronavirus has demonstrated the influence China wields in the institution relative to the US. Until mid-January, the WHO stated that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission on a large scale, this statement was made without independent investigation into China’s claims. Following the US decision to halt funding, China identified a US leadership void and stepped in to fill it, announcing a 30 million dollar increase in their contributions to the institution, enabling greater Chinese influence in global health and the portrayal of China as the new champion of multilateralism. So long as China continues to benefit from this institution relative to others, structural realists predict they will continue to amplify cooperation and influence within the World Health Organisation.
According to realists, the main goal of states within the international system is survival. States understand the best way to ensure their territorial integrity is to be more powerful relative to others. These conditions place a premium on the possession of military power as states are aware of the inherent risks of conflict. China has historically undertaken expansionist strategies to guarantee security and survival, during the global COVID pandemic China has scaled up its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, seizing the strategic opportunity presented by the diminished capabilities of the United States. On April 2, a Chinese Coast Guard ship rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat carrying eight fishermen off the disputed Paracel Islands. Beijing blamed the Vietnamese ship for fishing illegally in Chinese waters. In the previous month, China commissioned two new research stations on artificial reefs it has built on maritime turf claimed by the Philippines. The reefs are equipped with defence silos and military-grade runways. John Mearsheimer asserts that hegemony is the most effective way to secure the survival of a state. For this reason, the rivalry among the great powers for hegemony is a constant feature in the international system.
The US government and military officials have criticised China for its increased militarisation in the South China Sea during the global pandemic. From the US perspective, the waterway is a vital channel for US-style sea power. In mid-March, US military vessels and aircraft conducted live-fire missile testing in the Philippine Sea. By demonstrating US military capabilities, a clear message of deterrence was sent to China. Structural realism offers a simple explanation for the recent foreign policy of China and the US. China is an emerging global hegemon and is pursuing as much power as possible within the South China Sea while discouraging others as a means of guaranteeing their security. The US seeks to maintain the status quo of American regional hegemony within the South China Sea and is attempting to balance against the increasingly combative behaviour of China.
While structural realism provides unique and helpful insights into understanding recent COVID-inspired foreign policies of the US and China, the theory fails to grapple with the influence of domestic politics on a state’s external behaviour. Structural realists assert that the driving forces for international relations are systemic and uninfluenced by domestic politics. States are considered interchangeable ‘black boxes’ that will behave similarly as the international system creates the same basic incentives for all states. This level of analysis has limited structural realism in its understanding of the diverging COVID strategies of the US and China. Differences in the domestic political systems of China and the United States have proven relevant to recent international relations. Neo-classical realists have attempted to reconcile this criticism of structural realism by recognising the impact that domestic politics may have on a state’s external behaviour. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping protecting the reputation and authority of the Chinese Communist Party is prioritised above human life. China’s authoritarian leadership and communist political system led to the censorship of COVID information and prevented China from signalling early warnings to the international community.
The United States is a democratic republic and stresses the importance of free communication between people and government. These internal values within the US have led to high rates of testing and the transparent disclosure of these figures to the international community. At current, the US has recorded the highest COVID death toll in the world, surpassing China. In saying this, it is important to remember that while the Chinese government claims to be ahead of the US in containing the virus with no reports of new cases, we have reason to doubt China’s information due to its censorship of early COVID warnings and lack of cooperation throughout the pandemic. We will likely never know how many Chinese citizens were infected and died due to COVID-19. In the US, President Trump downplayed the coronavirus and offered advice which conflicted medical experts. However, the democratic system in the US underpins the leadership of the President. When a US president fails, citizens can count on the objectivity of trusted institutions such as the U.S Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to provide accurate and objective information. The Disease Centre’s weekly morbidity and mortality report has been a fixture of critical communication between government and the public since 1946 and this has continued throughout the COVID pandemic.
Neo-classical realist theory inspires the contemplation of alternate foreign policy decisions which may have emerged had COVID-19 first broken out in New York rather than Wuhan. Internal conditions within the United States uphold democratic values enabling stronger communication between government and citizens. These societal underpinnings are likely to have guided a different foreign policy approach to China. While we can never truly be certain of this assumption, in order to prevent the COVID-19 global pandemic, an approach focused on saving lives rather than preserving power, based on transparent reporting and international cooperation was required, the US has exhibited these priorities in their COVID response while China did not.
The relevance of structural realism in the study of modern international realtions has been reinforced by the COVID-inspired external behaviours of China and the United States. The theory provides a useful framework for understanding inter-state completion, the fragility of international cooperation and military security. While it is limited by its system level of analysis, neo-classical realism has built upon previous work of structural realists and can assist in our understanding of the domestic forces behind foreign policy.