The Chinese awakening was one of the central events in the history of the 20th century history. In the penultimate decade of the 19th century, Western capitalism penetrated China: cheap industrial products damaged local crafts and industries. Social decadence and increasing poverty were worsened by famine and floods in the largely populated rural areas. In the expanding port cities, a revolutionary proletariat and intelligencija were formed. The work of translators such as Yan Fu (1854-1921) brought Chinese intellectuals into contact with modern and contemporary Western thought.
Statesmen such as Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and Liang Qichao (1873-1929) influenced Emperor Guangxu (emperor from 1875 to 1908). His reforms were countered by a reactionary coup d’état on September 21, 1898 by Empress Dowager Cixi (regent from 1861 to-1908), the Emperor’s aunt, which ended the Hundred Days’ Reform. The emperor was put under house arrest; the reformers were executed and the xenophobic Boxer movement was encouraged.
Foreign pressure and domestic political powerlessness led in 1905 to the abolition of the old system based on State examinations for admission to the Civil Service and to the renewal and modernisation of defence led by Gen. Yuan Shikai (1859-1916). Western powers, including Italy, intervened in Chinese internal affairs.
On August 20, 1905, doctor Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen, 1866-1925) founded – in Tokyo – the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance (Tongmenghui), a movement that in its programme envisaged the three principles of the people: unity of the people (nationalism); rights of the people (democracy); welfare of the people (socialism). It was spread by the Overseas Chinese, by students and missionary schools, and extended throughout the motherland. On October 10, 1911, the right set of conditions turned a revolt in Wuchang into the Chinese Revolution. To make up for the losses, the Qing court responded positively to a series of demands to turn the authoritarian imperial rule into a constitutional monarchy. Yuan Shikai was appointed as the new Prime Minister, but before he was able to regain the areas conquered by the revolutionaries, the provinces began to declare their allegiance to the ARC. At the time of the uprising Sun Zhongshan was in the United States on a fundraising trip. He went first to London and then to Paris to ensure that neither country gave financial or military support to the government of the Manchurian Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Sun Zhongshan returned to China shortly afterwards. Meanwhile the revolutionaries had conquered Nanking, the former capital of the Chinese Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
Delegates from seventeen provinces arrived for the first National Assembly, which elected Sun Zhongshan as provisional President on November 29, 1911. On January 1, 1912, he proclaimed the Republic of China. Heaven had withdrawn the mandate from the Qing.
The international reaction to the revolution was cautious. During the uprising the countries with investment in China remained neutral, although anxious to protect the rights of the unfair treaties achieved with the Qing through the First and Second Opium Wars. The United States, however, was largely supportive of the republican project, and in 1913, Washington was among the first capitals to establish full diplomatic relations with the new Republic. The United Kingdom, the Japanese and the Russian Empires, etc. followed suit.
Sun telegraphed Yuan Shikai, promising that if he accepted the establishment of the Republic, he would be appointed as President. This was done to win the support of the military for the cause of national unity. Yuan Shikai accepted, thus forcing the court to give him the authority to form a republican government. On February 12, 1912 he acknowledged the abdication of the six-year old emperor Pu Yi (later emperor of the pro-Japanese puppet State of Manchukuo from 1934 to 1945). We will see later why Yuan needed the so-called “continuous permission”.
Meanwhile Outer Mongolia (the present State) had declared its independence (July 1911) – and Tibet, as well (1912) – recognised through the iniquitous Simla Convention (July 3, 1914). Although the new government created the Republic, it did not unify the country under its control. The withdrawal of the Qing led to a power vacuum in some regions. On August 25, 1912 Sun Zhongshan and Song Jiaoren (born in 1882) founded the Guomindang (GMD), the Chinese Nationalist Party derived from the ARC. In the December 1912-January 1913 elections (in which 5% of the Chinese population voted) the GMD won 45.06% of the seats in the National Assembly.
Yuan Shikai probably had Song Jiaoren assassinated on March 22, 1913. Later, relying on 223 AN members out of 870 (who had created the Progressive Party, Jinbudang), he dismissed the GMD provincial governors or forced them to swear allegiance. This was followed by the Second Revolution (July-September 1913), which was suppressed by the government.
On November 20, 1915, the end of the Republic of China and the return of the Empire was declared. On December 12, 1915, Yuan proclaimed himself emperor with the name Hongxian. As early as December 25, 1915, public disapproval and people’s aversion to the monarchy were expressed. Japan withdrew its support for the Yuan prince. Some provinces, under the leadership of the Governor of Yunnan, Cai E (1882-1916), rebelled against the new emperor, who renounced the swearing-in ceremony and relinquished his title on March 22, 1916. He died on June 6, 1916.
China entered World War I on August 14, 1917, declaring war on Germany, and immediately occupied Qingdao, the largest German naval base abroad, located on the Shandong Peninsula. Yuan Shikai’s death worsened the Chinese crisis, continuing the process of territorial fragmentation. The issue of provincial governors being military and directly controlling their own armies laid the foundations for the period of warlords. Such “feudal lords” often administered their territories without recognising the incumbent government. The numerous generals in the Northern army tried to bring the Beijing government under their aegis. On the other hand, the interference of the States – which had the government finances in their own hands, directly collecting customs duties and gradually granting them to the recognised “legitimate” government after deducting allowances and interest – worsened the bloody internal conflicts. Each power wished to impose its authority on China to the detriment of other foreigners, and for that reason supported one or another of the different warlords.
When the Versailles Conference (January 18, 1919 – January 21, 1920) assigned the German bases in Shandong to Japan, with the backing of the Beijing government, intellectual, literary and political currents called a series of protests throughout the country on May 4, 1919, in which the owners of small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as blue collar workers, participated. The organisers referred to the New Culture Movement, which had originated in 1915 and developed at the Peking University, where the importance of science and democracy was extolled, thus rejecting China’s traditional culture. According to Chinese historiography, the May Fourth Movement marked the beginning of contemporary history. Events followed one another swiftly. Sun Zhongshan established the military government in Guangzhou (Canton, 1921-25). After his death, the national government later moved to Wuhan (1925-27), under the leadership of the rising star Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek, 1887-1975).
The Communist Party of China (CPC) was founded on July 1, 1921. In 1924 the good relations between the Soviet Union and the GMD led the CPC to create a united front with the GMD. In 1926 Jiang Jieshi launched a successful expedition against the Northern warlords. In 1927 he moved his government to Nanking, broke the alliance with the CPC, and bloodily suppressed the Communists with the Shanghai massacre and the Guangzhou peasant revolts. In 1928 he reunified most of the country. Jiang Jieshi centralised the five powers (the executive, legislative, judiciary, investigation and control ones) into a State Council under his leadership. On August 1, 1927, the CPC founded the Red Army as a form of defence against the GMD attacks.
In 1931 there was the period of the so-called “formative government”: with the Anglo-US support, foreign concessions were regained; extraterritoriality privileges were abolished and domestic duties were eliminated; foreign concessions in Shanghai and foreign control of port duties remained. The government turned into a military dictatorship.
On September 19, 1931 Japan attacked Manchuria. On November 7 of the same year the CPC established the Chinese Soviet Republic in Jiangxi, with Mao Zedong (1893-1976) as Prime Minister. In December 1930 civil war had actually begun. Five annihilations campaigns against the Communists under Jiang Jieshi ended in October 1933 with the Reds being crushed. From October 1934 until the same month of the following year, the Reds launched the legendary Long March of Ten Thousand Li (Changzheng) to move from the then indefensible Jiangxi to Shaanxi. Twelve thousand impervious kilometres covered by the Red Army (later the People’s Liberation Army). One hundred thousand left as against 400,000 and only 20,000 reached their destination.
In 1936 Jiang Jieshi reached the height of his power, controlling 11 of China’s 18 provinces. But on July 7 the Japanese attacked China. In 1937 there was a new agreement between communists and nationalists to combat Japan, the Rising Sun. The GMD government moved from Nanking to Chongqing. Later, once it had fallen into the Japanese’s hands, the collaborationist government of Wang Jingwei (1883-1944), a former GMD member, came to life there. In 1941, Jiang Jieshi – being sure of Japan’s defeat due the entry of his US allies into the war – once again broke the agreement with the communists. In China there were three wars at the same time: the GMD against the CPC, and both separately against the occupiers and the puppet government. Japan surrendered and capitulated on September 9, 1945.
After the end of the Japanese occupation, the Chinese economy was in a very bad state. With the US support, the GMD troops occupied the large cities, but were unable to maintain order. On August 14, 1945 a treaty of friendship and alliance was signed with the Soviet Union, which retained, inter alia, Lushunko (Port Arthur, which was under Soviet-Japanese administration until 1953 and later returned to the People’s Republic of China). Negotiations between nationalists and communists for a coalition government failed. There was renewed fighting between the two factions.
In 1947 the civil war escalated. With the US help, the nationalists held power in vast territories, but the communist troops achieved new successes.
On the eve of May 1, 1948, the CPC’s Central Committee issued an appeal to convene a new conference after the failure of the previous one. Indeed, on October 10, 1945 – in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat – Mao Zedong and Jiang Jieshi had met and agreed on the country’s reconstruction and on convening a consultative political conference. It opened on January 10, 1946 and saw the participation of seven CPC delegates, nine from the GMD, nine from the Democratic League, five from the Youth Party and nine independents.
After reaching the agreement of February 25, 1946 the Conference stalled in July when Jiang Jieshi launched a large-scale offensive against the communist territories with 218 brigades: the real start of further civil war. In December 1947, however, Mao announced that 640,000 nationalist soldiers had been killed or wounded and over a million had laid down their arms.
The appeal of April 30, 1948 was appreciated and immediately echoed by democratic parties, people’s organisations, non-movement personalities and Oveseas Chinese.
On May 5, there were greetings from leaders of various democratic parties including Li Jishen (1885-1959) and He Xiangning (1879-1972) of the GMD Revolutionary Committee – a movement distinct from the GMD as such (the former was its President). Then Shen Junru (1875-1963) and Zhang Bojun (1895-1969) of the Democratic League leadership; Ma Xulun (1885-1970) and Wang Shaoao (1888-1970) of the Chinese Association for the Promotion of Democracy; Chen Qiyou (1892-1970) of the Justice Party; Peng Zemin (1877-1956) of the Chinese Peasants’ and Workers’ Democratic Party; Li Zhangda (1890-1953) of the National Salvation Association; Cai Tingkai (1892-1968) of the GMD Democracy Promotion Committee, and Tan Pingshan (1886-1956) of the Sanminzhuyi Comrades’ Federation (the Three Principles of the People).
Also Guo Moruo (1892-1978), a person with no party affiliation, sent a joint telegram from Xianggang (Hong Kong) to the CPC’s Central Committee, Mao Zedong and the entire nation supporting the communists’ call.
Meanwhile, the Association for the Promotion of Democracy and the Jiu San Society (September 3), which had established their headquarters in areas under the GMD rule, held secret meetings of their central committees to welcome the CPC document.
Mao Dun (1896-1981), Hu Yuzhi (1896-1986), Liu Yazi (1887-1958), Zhu Yunshan (1887-1981) and 120 democrats issued a joint communiqué expressing their agreement with the CPC position. In addition, 55 leaders of the democratic parties and people from outside the party issued joint comments on China’s political situation, stating:
“[…] during the People’s Liberation War, we are willing to contribute and cooperate in designing programs under the CPC’s leadership, expecting to promote the quick success of the Chinese People’s Democratic Revolution for the forthcoming foundation of an independent, free, peaceful and happy New China.”
The Conference held its first plenary session in Beijing from 21 to 30 September 1949. A total of 622 representatives attended. They were sent by the CPC, by democratic parties, independent personalities; mass and regional organisations, the People’s Liberation Army, ethnic minorities, Overseas Chinese, patriotic democrats and religious groups.
The first session exercised the functions of a fully-fledged parliamentary, legislative and constitutional Assembly of the nascent State until 1954, when the first National People’s Congress was elected. The CPC Central Committee adopted the Provisional Constitution (the CPCCC Common Programme), the CPCCC Organic Law and the Organic Law of the Central People’s Government. It chose Beijing as the capital of the country. It established the five-star red flag (Wu Xing Hong Qi) as the national flag: red stood for the revolution; the big star stood for the CPC; the other stars stood for the social classes: workers, peasants, lower middle class and capitalists (national middle class). It adopted the March of the Volunteers (Yiyongjun Jinxingqu) as the national anthem and opted for the Gregorian calendar. The session elected the CPCCC National Committee and the State Central People’s Government Council. On October 1 – through Mao, the NC Chairman – it proclaimed the People’s Republic of China.
The GMD government and army fled to Taiwan. Jiang Jieshi was defeated precisely because he was unable to offer his country a future of independence from the imperialist powers to which he was linked, starting with the United States.
When Heaven withdrew the mandate also from the bourgeois Republic, it was a cyclical change in universal history, comparable only to 1789 and 1917. The manoeuvres of the People’s Republic’s enemies later excluded eight hundred and forty-one million Chinese from the United Nations until 1971.
The Sino-Russian-led World Order: A Better Choice for the Globe?
International forums, which were once established to promote cooperation and dialogue among the world’s states, are now increasingly being used as platforms for confrontation and accusation. The recent example of G20 and G7 summits, where China and Russia faced criticism and isolation from Western countries over the Indo-pacific and their actions in Ukraine, plus India’s accusation of Pakistan as a terrorist sponsor state in the SCO summit, illustrate these trends. Instead of working towards finding a solution to pressing global problems, these meetings have devolved into platforms for airing grievances and pointing fingers – this shift in focus has undermined the effectiveness of these forums in addressing the very issues they were created to solve.
At their recent summit in Hiroshima, Japan, the G7 leaders issued their strongest-ever condemnation of Russia and China. They accused them of using economic coercion and militarizing the South China Sea and urged them to push Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine. Furthermore, at the G7 summit, leaders of the significant democracies pledged additional measures targeting Russia and spoke with a united voice on their growing concern over China.
Similarly, in Feb 2023, at the G20 finance minister’s summit held in Bengaluru, Russia and China declined to sign a joint statement condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and of course, as a sovereign state, Russia has the right to defend its territory and combat threats that pose a danger to its survival. These are just a few instances that illustrate how the Western world reacts to the actions and policies of China and Russia on the global stage.
Consequently, this recent condemnation and blaming at the Hiroshima summit demonstrate that international forums can no longer address serious global issues; instead, they have become arenas for blaming and accusing one another. This shift in the nature of international forums has significant implications for global governance and cooperation – It highlights the need for the failure of the current global system dominated by the Western bloc.
Besides, accusing states such as China and Russia at international forums is not a solution to global problems; instead, it can exacerbate regional tension and promote anti-sentiment against influential states. Furthermore, instead of promoting cooperation and dialogue, such accusations can foster an environment of mistrust and hostility, making it more challenging to find common ground and work towards resolving global issues.
In one of my previous papers, I argued that “the contemporary geopolitical landscape is characterized by escalating tension between the United States and its allies and China and Russia. This can be attributed to the absence of transparent and inclusive unipolar world order that effectively addresses the interests and concerns of all nations.“
I further elaborated that the US and its allies are not inclined to recognize the emergence of a Sino-Russian-led world order, as evidenced by the recent summit development. The West has frequently chastised China and Russia for their autocratic governments, breaches of human rights, and expansionist ambitions. Such claims, however, are based on a skewed and obsolete understanding of the global system that ignores the two countries’ legitimate interests and aspirations. Instead of making allegations, the Western world should be grateful for the Sino-Russian-led international system, which provides a more democratic, multipolar, and peaceful alternative to the US-dominated regional hegemony.
To begin with, the Sino-Russian-led international order is more democratic than the Western one since it recognizes the globe’s diversity of political systems and cultures. China and Russia do not push their ideals or ideologies on other countries but instead encourage them to exercise their sovereignty and self-determination. They also reject any influence or intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries, particularly by the United States and its allies. In contrast, the Western world has frequently employed economic and military force to compel or remove governments that do not share its interests or tastes. Iraq, Libya, Syria, Venezuela, and Iran are a few examples. Such operations have breached international law and generated insecurity and misery in several places.
Second, the Sino-Russian-led international order is more multipolar than the Western one because it balances the strength and influence of many global players. With expanding economic, military, and diplomatic capacities, China and Russia have emerged as crucial powers in the twenty-first century. They have also formed strategic alliances with other growing nations, including India, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, and Iran. They have joined forces to oppose the US-led unipolar system and call for more egalitarian and inclusive global governance. On the other hand, the Western world has attempted to preserve its domination and hegemony over other countries, particularly in regions such as Europe, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, and Africa. Many countries seeking greater autonomy have expressed displeasure and hostility to such a system.
Third, the Sino-Russian world order is more peaceful than the Western one because it values discussion and collaboration above confrontation and war. China and Russia have settled their historical differences and formed a comprehensive strategic alliance based on mutual trust and respect. They have also collaborated on several regional and global concerns, including counter-terrorism, non-proliferation, climate change, energy security, and pandemic response. They have also backed international institutions and procedures such as the United Nations (UN), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa), Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and others. In contrast, the Western world has frequently instigated or intensified tensions and disagreements with other countries, particularly China and Russia. A few examples are NATO expansion, missile defense deployment, sanctions system, and commerce.
Finally, international forums have the potential to promote cooperation and dialogue among nations; however, their effectiveness is hindered when they become platforms for confrontation and accusation. In contrast, the Sino-Russian-led world order is a superior choice for the globe to the Western one. It is more democratic because it values diversity; multipolar because it balances power; and more peaceful because it promotes dialogue – thus, rather than criticizing, the Western world should commend the international order led by Sino-Russian cooperation.
In conclusion, while international forums have the potential to promote cooperation among nations, they are increasingly being used for confrontation. In this context, the Sino-Russian-led world order offers a more democratic and peaceful alternative to the US-dominated hegemony and may be a better choice for promoting global cooperation.
Beijing’s Continued Repression of Religious Minorities
On May 24, a new U.S. congressional committee on China approved reports pushing back on Beijing over its treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. The committee has highlighted what Washington says is an ongoing genocide against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang region. In March this year, a U.S. official told Newsweek she was “especially alarmed” by China’s placement of 1 million Tibetan children in a residential school system, which Beijing said was part of a broader poverty alleviation program.
The treatment of both Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang, and the Buddhist population in Tibet, by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), created by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949, officially an atheist state has been coming under increased scrutiny in the past few years. China’s policies towards religious minorities as a whole have developed from the CCP’s sense of concern about the threat to its authority posed by organised religion.
Anti Religious campaigns were launched in 1949, under the direction of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Mao Zedong but these became particularly active during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). The possession of religious texts was also criminalised. Carte blanche to attack and take action against religious institutions that were seen as representatives of the old ‘feudal’ order was given, and repression and atrocities were committed throughout all of the regions of China, the non-Han areas, including Tibet and Xinjiang, were affected particularly badly. Thousands of Tibetans escaped to India with sacred texts and compiled teachings in exile communities.
The 1982 Constitution made a clear distinction between what it described as normal religious activities and those that threatened the stability of the state, “The state protects normal religious activities. No one may use religion to make an attack on the order of society, harm the physical health of citizens, or impede the activities of the state’s education system.” ‘Normal religious activities’ is interpreted to mean religious activities carried out by religious bodies that have official government approval.
The Chinese government, led by Jiang Zemin from 1989 to 2002, commenced the persecution of Falun Gong and the Tibetan Buddhists. The persecution of Tibetan Buddhists escalated under Hu Jintao. The announcement by China’s foreign ministry in 2011 that only Beijing could appoint the 15th Dalai Lama, led to the self immolation of a monk Tsewang Norbu, at Nyitso monastery, whilst chanting “Long live the Dalai Lama” and “Tibetan people want freedom.” After Xi Jinping adjured Party members in 2016 to act as “unyielding Marxist atheists,” China intensified anti-religious campaigns in the country. Since then the persecution and targeting of Tibetans and of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, has intensified.
Chinese military surveillance units have been installed at Kirti Monastery, Yarchen Gar, Shak Rongpo Gaden Dargyeling Monastery, and at other monasteries. In a report dated November 1993 The Christian Science Monitor had reported that, “an influx of Chinese into the region, along with Beijing’s expanding infiltration of monasteries, threatens to bury Tibetan culture.” one Tibetan Buddhist monk says, “In the past, the party attacked Tibet’s monasteries with guns and tanks,”… “But today the government uses undercover police and management committees to attack us from within.This is a much more sophisticated method of causing the slow death of Tibetan Buddhism.” Tibetan Buddhism has a deep relationship with the Tibetan identity and this is precisely why China’s approach is to impose its own Chinese brand of Buddhism onto the Tibetans. If the Chinese authorities can control Tibetan Buddhism, then they can control the Tibetan identity. Today thousands of Tibetans are languishing in prisons and detention centres strewn across the region’s mountainous terrain. In 2022, the U.S. imposed sanctions on two officials, namely Wu Yingjie, Communist Party Secretary of Tibet from 2016 to 2021, and Zhang Hongbo, the region’s police chief since 2018, for the arbitrary detention and physical abuse of members of religious minority groups in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
China is persecuting all minorities and it has different rationales for doing it. In 2018 the Associated Press reported that that “Xi is waging the most severe systematic suppression of Christianity in the country since religious freedom was written into the Chinese constitution in 1982.” This has involved “destroying crosses, burning bibles, shutting churches and ordering followers to sign papers renouncing their faith,” actions taken against “so-called underground or house churches that defy government restrictions. Pastors have received instructions in 2023 to“teach parishioners to “always follow the Party,” and ‘study Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.”
The treatment of Uyghur Muslims makes many of the headlines from China, as does the rejection of these reports by Beijing. Uighur Muslims are subject to heavy surveillance as part of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to eliminate cultural, linguistic and religious differences from the country’s majority Han culture. Evidence suggests that the CCP is engaged in a campaign to eradicate culturally, if not physically, the Uyghur Muslims. While releasing the US Department of State’s Annual report on religious freedom around the world for 2022, Rashad Hussain, the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom said, “The PRC government continue[s] to commit genocide and crimes against humanity against Uighurs, who are predominantly Muslim, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups.” It is difficult to precisely estimate the total number of Muslims in China and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Eastern Turkestan). Muslims of the Xinjiang region speak Turkic languages, mainly Uyghur and Kazakh. Party policy towards Uyghur though always discriminatory, further tightened after 2014 when Xi Jingping visited the region and called for a “period of painful interventionary treatment” and the installation of Chen Quangao as CCP secretary for the region in August 2016. Thereafter the suppression of Uyghur religious practices, political indoctrination intensified through arbitrary detention of Uyghurs in state-sponsored internment camps, forced labour, severe ill-treatment,forced sterilisation, forced contraception,and forced abortion.
China frames its activities in the region as countering extremism. According to Maya Wang, acting China director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), “The Chinese government outrageously yet dangerously conflates Islam with violent extremism to justify its abhorrent abuses against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.”It has now been widely reported that the Chinese government has arbitrarily detained more than a million Muslims in reeducation camps since 2017. Initially China denied the existence of any detention camps in Xinjiang, but in 2018, said it had set up “vocational training centres” necessary to curb what it said was terrorism, separatism and religious radicalism in the region.
Diverse ethnic and religious groups are considered threats to China’s regime legitimacy, and a challenge to Han centric ethnocentrism. China’s repressive policies in Xinjiang were the subject of a landmark report by the United Nations Human Rights Office in November 2022. However it was a diplomatic victory for China as the proposal from Britain, Turkey, the United States and other mostly Western countries to hold a debate on alleged rights abuses against Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China’s western Xinjiang region was voted down. The US is not alone in finding China’s activities in gingeng crimes against humanity; Belgium, Canada, UK have concurred that ‘genocide’ is underway in Xinjiang, but other countries in the Asia Pacific region Japan, Australian, New Zealand have demurred from holding China accountable. China’s centrality to the global economy, large and powerful military, and permanent membership of the United Nations’ Security Council complicate the use of conventional diplomatic and economic policy levers to help ameliorate the plight of the minorities.
China’s Game in the Arctic: A Tale of Deception?
In the past years, the Arctic has been drawing attention for the economic, strategic, and geopolitical implications that are deriving from its exposure to increasing temperatures. As the thawing of its ice cap, increase in sea levels and loss of ice gives rise to environmental concerns, this scenario has opened the door to both, new opportunities and tensions. The region that proved to be of tremendous importance throughout the Cold War, serving as a frontier between the Soviet Union and NATO and becoming one of the most militarized regions of the world (Huebert, 2019, p. 2), is remerging as a strategic trigger point. On the one hand, its untapped natural resources make it appealing for geopolitical and economic reasons. The presence of non-combustible minerals, industrial resources and the sea lanes of communication (SLOCS) that surround the region, together with the improved conditions for its extraction have caught the attention of neighboring States (Sharma, 2021). In fact, the projected volume of the Arctic’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves is believed to amount to 22% of the world’s undiscovered resources that can be harvested with the existing technology (Turunen, 2019). Thus, the access to these resources has the potential to ensure energy security for those States with legitimacy for its exploitation. On the other hand, the current climatic conditions have cleared the way for new navigational routes in the region. Whereas maritime routes such as the Northwest Passage (NWP) and the Northern Sea Route (NSR) are only operational for few months of the year, researchers have estimated that by 2040-2059 they might be free from Arctic ice (Smith & Stephenson, 2013). Hence, the commercial viability of the, so called, “polar Mediterranean” (Roucek, 1983) can minimize by almost a half the shipping time and maritime distance travelled between East Asia and Western Europe via the Panama or Suez Canals (Herrmann, 2019).
In this power play, with the Arctic attracting the attention of States that are quite far from the region, tensions regarding its governance are surfacing. Differently to what happens with Antarctica, the Artic is not a global common and no treaty regulates its legal framework. Aiming to ensure their claim over the region, the original Arctic Five (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States) issued the Ilulissat Declaration, which reiterated their sovereign rights and jurisdiction over large areas of the Arctic Ocean (Sharma, 2021). This gave rise to questions concerning the rights left to non-Arctic nations to influence the region. Whistle this question remains unanswered, China is creeping into the region.
Since the Asian country conducted its first Arctic expedition, in 1999, and built its first research base, known as the “Yellow River Station” in 2004, it has progressively increased its investment (Lean, 2020). Nevertheless, from 2010 onwards, its pursue to be acknowledged as an Arctic stakeholder placed the region high in its foreign policy agenda. In 2013, its strategy began to pave the way for its endeavor and the PRC went from being a peripheral partner to being granted observer status in the Arctic Council (Chater, 2021). Little after, in 2018, Beijing published a white paper titled “China’s Arctic Policy” wherein it is described as a “near-Arctic state”, marking the first steps of its statecraft efforts to shape the region to its advantage (Lean, 2020). Thereafter, Beijing’s policy towards the Arctic is based on multilateral alliances and win-win gains between the players involved, which could eventually support China’s claim overt its legitimate presence in the region (Hossein, 2019, p. 4). In this regard, the State’s involvement in the Arctic has been directed at expanding its footprint in the economic and scientific fields. Pertaining to the former, in 2013 “MV Yong Sheng”, a Chinese commercial ship embarked on the first trip from a Chinese port to Rotterdam via the NSR (Jian, Thor & Tillman, 2018, p. 347). Ever since, Russia and China have collaborated closely to benefit from the melting of the Arctic and establish a safe and commercially viable transport corridor through the NSR (Lean, 2020). These ambitions were crystallized with the release of China’s “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the Belt and Road Initiative” in 2017, thereby reaffirming its desire to extend the BRI to the Arctic so as to connect Europe and Asia trough what was labelled as the “Polar Silk Road” (Manenti, 2017). Arctic shipping routes are estimated to be 40% cheaper than traditional ones (Baldassarri, 2014) and bearing in mind that the Asian country executes 90% of its trade through maritime transport, the advantage is considerable (Hossein, 2019, p. 4). Moreover, the diversification of routes might bring an end to China’s “Malacca Dilemma”. This refers to the vulnerability to a naval blockade and the lack of alternatives that China has to endure as consequence of the deteriorating relations with India and the power that the US Navy exerts over the Strait of Malacca, which currently accounts for 80% of its trade with Europe (Paszak, 2021). Similarly, China’s scientific research and cooperation with Arctic countries is a core component of its policy towards the region. Seeking to strengthen its legal right to expand its role and access to the Arctic, Beijing has resorted to science diplomacy (Sharma, 2021). Since purchasing the Xuelong icebreaker in 1993, the PRC has conducted more than 12 expeditions (Xinhua, 2021) and has strengthened the maintenance and construction of research, ice and satellite stations, vessels, icebreakers and other supporting platforms in the region. However, there might be more to it than scientific research.
The belief among Chinese strategists and scholars that the US is using the Arctic as a, yet another, front in its anti-China containment and concerns over the increasing security competition make China’s scientific interest in the region something that seizes no small amount of attention. Thereafter, while Chinese expeditions might be disguised as purely civilian research, a closer scrutiny reveals the dual implications (civilian and military) of most of its research programs (Lean, 2020). As an example, the People’s Liberation Army Navy decision to dispatch vessels to Arctic and US waters, including a fleet oiler, surface combatants, amphibious warships and a guided-missile destroyer and frigate, among others, together with the recourse to polar-orbiting military satellites, fails to justify their supposedly “purely civilian aspirations” (Dale-Huang, Doshi & Zhang, 2021, p. 29). In a similar manner, the testing and deployment of dual-use assets such as underwater robots, buoys for monitoring air-sea interactions, cloud-based online platforms, autonomous underwater glider and polar fixed-wing aircrafts evidence how Beijing is working towards its autonomy from foreign satellites and stations for Arctic data (Lean, 2020). What’s more, there are signs that herald China’s desire to invest in nuclear-powered icebreakers, which could ultimately lead to the transfer of that technology to military vessels (Dale-Huang, Doshi & Zhang, 2021, p. 30). Thus, the ongoing “weaponization of science” by the PRC has raised the alarms among Arctic littorals which have condemned the dual purpose of its activities (Buchanan & Glaser, 2022).
At this point, the question of whether Chinese ulterior motives for accessing the Arctic are realistic and attainable might come up. In this regard, everything seems to suggest that Beijing’s interests in the region are likely long-term. It is important to bear in mind that the Arctic is not the South China Sea, its number one priority together with Taiwan, with which the PCR has historic ties and is exercising a more aggressive policy. Moreover, the aftermath of the covid pandemic and its economic headwinds have slowed down operations in the region. Nonetheless, China still wants a seat at the table in deciding the Arctic’s future and, therefore, is expected to persist with its pursue of dual-use scientific research and protection of commercial interests. In fact, part of its strategy might be to quietly keep on establishing itself as a near-Arctic state, similarly to what it first did to advance its territorial ambitions towards the South China Sea (Grady, 2022). In the midst of the increasing tensions between Beijing and its Western counterparts the future of its Arctic agenda will presumably become “ever more salient to the future of trade, sustainable development, and international security” (Buchanan & Glaser, 2022). As a matter of fact, the best example of the seriousness with which major players in the region are reacting to China’s advance in the Arctic is found in the shift of the US Arctic policy. The new strategy released in October 2022, which complements NATOS’s, calls for the enhancement of military exercises, the expansion of the US’ military presence in Alaska and NATO States and the compromise to rebuild its icebreaking fleet (Grady, 2022). Few months later, in February 2023, US-led military exercises in the Arctic, hosted by Norway and Finland, brought together more than 10,000 military personnel from the UK, US, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Finland (Bridenthal, 2023). Likewise, Denmark, owing to what the country’s Foreign Policy has described as “a new geopolitical battlefield”, has reviewed its security policy, increasing its military budget with the “Arctic capacity package” aimed at intensifying surveillance with radar, drones and satellites (Grady, 2022). In this increasingly assertive scenario, that resembles that of the Cold War, the Arctic is swiftly emerging as a region of militarized power politics.
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