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John Ivison: China makes dangerous power plays while rest of the world copes with COVID-19

The Chinese navy garrisoned on Woody Island in the South China Sea revealed last week that it had managed to grow cabbages on sandy beaches using new “sand to earth” technology.

It means that the military forces on an island bristling with J11 fighter jets and H6 bombers will no longer rely on imported vegetables.

The discovery has implications for other man-made military outposts in the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands.

China is pursuing what it calls a “cabbage strategy,” surrounding islands in the region with as many ships as possible, like leaves around a cabbage.

Now, the People’s Liberation Army is ready to grow real cabbages on those artificial islands.

While the rest of the world has been paralyzed by COVID-19, a virus the Communist Party’s cover-up helped to spread, China has been busy.

The draft decision to usurp Hong Kong’s freedom is merely the latest power play that takes advantage of the distraction caused by the pandemic.

Beijing has also increased its efforts to dominate the South China Seas, through which 30 per cent of the world’s shipping trade travels, by creating two new administrative districts to govern islands in the Spratly and Paracel chains that are also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. The neighbourhood bully has made it known that any resistance will be crushed – a People’s Liberation Army ship aimed its gun control director at a Filipino anti-submarine corvette earlier this year.

The dismembering of Hong Kong’s Basic Law is hardly more subtle. On April 18, under cover of the coronavirus, 15 of the territory’s best known democracy campaigners were arrested, including Martin Lee, a former legislator. Beijing made it known it would no longer be bound by Article 22 of the Basic Law, which banned Chinese government interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs. A “draft decision” currently before the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislative body, says that Hong Kong must improve national security to ban “treason, secession, sedition and subversion.”

That implies China could have its own law enforcement agency in the territory – a development that would strike the coup de grace to the “one country, two systems” policy that has protected Hong Kong’s autonomy since the handover from Britain in 1997.

Xi Jinping, China’s president, has clearly decided to practice power with impunity. In another border dispute along the Line of Actual Control between India and China, patrols have faced off at four different locations in the past month. The two most populous countries on the planet have abided by a cold peace since fighting a war in 1962. It is a front that could turn hot again.

Xi seems confident that there will be words from his enemies but no actions.

The recent power grabs have alarmed the Japanese even more than usual. Japan’s coastguard has recorded a consistently high number of Chinese ships in what it considers its territorial waters. Defence minister Taro Kono has talked to his equivalent ministers in most Western governments, including Canada’s, to maintain “a seamless defensive posture to uphold and reinforce the free and open Indo-Pacific”.

The Trudeau government has been accused of being too conciliatory when it comes to China. When the prime minister was first elected, the Japanese worried he would tilt towards Beijing and it is fair to say Trudeau has gone to great lengths to avoid causing the Chinese offense.

Supporters point out the arbitrary detention of two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, has weighed on his stance.

The prospects for their release would not be enhanced by politically motivated mud-slinging.

But Trudeau’s pacification of the Chinese does not accord with his “unwavering commitment” to democratic principles.

It may not justify the charge of “appeasement” levelled by Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer.

But it has taken far too long for the scales to fall from the prime minister’s eyes about the true nature of the autocratic regime in Beijing.

The blatant power grab over Hong Kong should finally convince Trudeau to get tougher – though historically low levels of support for China among Canadians may be just as influential.

The Liberal government has issued a rebuke of sorts.

In concert with the British and Australians, Canada sent out a statement on Friday that expressed concern at the new proposals. “Making such a law on Hong Kong’s behalf, without the direct participation of its people, legislature or judiciary could clearly undermine the ‘one country, two systems’ principle under which Hong Kong is guaranteed a high degree of autonomy,” it noted.

Does Trudeau really imagine the Communist Party is willing to engage in constructive conversations with anyone these days?

David Mulroney, Canada’s former ambassador in Beijing, said that Canada has to follow through with action, if the Chinese enforce the new law. That might take the form of asset freezes and travel bans against Chinese officials. “We need to come off the fence and support those who are trying to preserve the rights promised them,” he said.

It’s unlikely anything Canada might say or do will have much of an impact.

But Xi might pause for thought if a crackdown on democracy hurts the Chinese economy.

Hong Kong now accounts for just three per cent of Chinese GDP, down from close to 25 per cent in 1997. But it remains useful to China as a financial entrepot for Western money. The territory’s stock market is the world’s fourth largest and the majority of capital raised on it is for Chinese firms.

The territory has separate legal and economic status but that could be revoked by the U.S. were Xi to introduce mainland security forces to back up the Hong Kong police.

However, this is not a regime that can be brought around easily.

Trudeau sounded as if he still believes mollification is the way to go when he said on Monday that “it will be important for the Chinese government to engage in constructive conversations with the citizen of Hong Kong.”

Does he really imagine the Communist Party is willing to engage in constructive conversations with anyone these days?

Just after he was elected in 2015, I spent some time in Japan talking to leading academics and political strategists about China. Tomohiko Taniguchi, a special adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said he believed conflict was inevitable in all areas – cyber, economic and military.

Kunihiko Miyake, research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, said China was making the same mistake Japan itself made 80 years previous – “ugly nationalism, supported by a majority of people and taken advantage of by a military that has no civilian supervision, in an effort to change the status quo in the western Pacific by force.”

At the time, I felt they were overstating the threat. I don’t think that now.

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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