China Geopolitical Watch – From November 26 to December 2 2022

Watch contributors: Thomas Taochy, Vadim Leduc Argenta, Ines Eugène, Anna Balawender (coordinator)

26/11/2022 : China sends coast guards near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, days after maritime negotiations with Japan. -Thomas Taochy-

The official account of the Chinese coast guard and several Japanese media reported that Chinese patrol boats were spotted on November 25 near the disputed Diaoyus (according to the Chinese) or Senkaku (according to the Japanese) islands.

Kyodo news reports that four Chinese coast guard vessels are sailing near the islands, while the two leaders of China and Japan decided at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok on  November 17 to establish better bilateral cooperation and more dialogue on maritime and territorial issues.

According to the SCMP, this was the 32nd such deployment this year and Chinese vessels had been spotted near the disputed islands for 23 consecutive days. This occupation again followed an online meeting between the two countries on the maritime issue. Japan had diplomatically protested to China following the event.

The Japan Times media reports «that two ships entered the territorial waters on Friday at around 2:35 am. Then at about 10 a.m., two more ships arrived, one of which was equipped with a 76mm gun».

27/12/2022: Wave of protests in China after the Urumqi fire. – Ines Eugène – 

For a week, demonstrations have been breaking out in China against the zero-Covid policy implemented by the Chinese government for almost 3 years. These riots follow the fire of Thursday, November 24th where 10 people lost their lives in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang autonomous region. According to the South China Morning Post, unable to flee because of the government’s anti-covid policies, which impose absolute confinement on nearly 4 million Chinese, these people found themselves trapped in the fire that ravaged their building.

The very next day, hundreds of people took to the streets to protest against the Chinese government’s policy. This event, coupled with a generalized feeling of being «fed up». In China, open defiance of the government is punishable by prison. This exceptional and sometimes very violent wave of protest took place only a few weeks after the announcement of Xi Jinping’s third term at the Communist Party Congress. All the more rare, the Chinese government is forced to accept part of the claims made by announcing an end to the zero covid measures «step by step». According to RFI, China has announced 20 measures to adjust the zero-Covid policy, such as facilitating travel to China and boosting vaccination.

Some foreign observers do not hesitate to say that these riots are the most important that China has experienced since the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989. Indeed, in addition to anti-vaccination politics, signs and slogans also call for more democracy, rule of law and freedom of speech.

Although the events are recent and the information coming from China is weak, it is enough to question the strategy of the Chinese government towards what could, in the long run, become truly destabilizing for the Communist Party.

28/11/2022: Russia’s ambassador to China pledges to fight «unipolar hegemony» in his first meeting with Wang Yi -Thomas Taochy-

Russian envoy Igor Morgulov met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on November 28, 2022 as part of his new job, according to ChinaDaily.

During the meeting, the SCMP reported that the Russian ambassador reaffirmed his commitment to fight alongside China against «unipolar hegemony», a term used to criticise Western sanctions targeting the two countries’ technological and military development. Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry website reported Wang Yi as saying: «The two countries are committed to defending the international system with the United Nations (UN) at its core and the international order based on international law, and reject power politics».

Finally, Igor Morgulov took the opportunity of this bilateral meeting to further underline the Sino-Russian friendship as reported by the website Xinhua: «The ties between Russia and China cannot be broken, and the friendship between the two countries can overcome any challenge.»

30/11/2022: Sino-Kazakh virtual meeting to strengthen cooperation at Russia’s expense -Anna Balawender-

On November 30, a virtual meeting was held between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and his Kazakh counterpart Alikhan Smailov. During this dematerialized exchange, the two representatives celebrated the 30 years of bilateral relations and affirmed their willingness to strengthen their cooperation, especially in the field of energy.

SCMP recalls that last September, during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit held from 14 to 16, China’s gain of influence in Central Asian countries, made possible by the decline of Russian influence, was evident. At the summit, agreements in sensitive areas were signed, including agreements on infrastructure investment «delayed due to Russian opposition» – including a trans-Caspian international transport corridor and a railway line linking Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Li Lifan, a specialist on Russia and Central Asia at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said after the summit that Russia’s backlash was a «window of opportunity» for China.

But China is not alone in being attracted to the void left by Russia in Central Asia. On November 29, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was received at the Élysée Palace by French President Emmanuel Macron. Michaël Levystone, researcher at the French Institute on International Relations (Ifri), reminds us that Kazakhstan has a subsoil rich in resources, notably oil, gas and uranium. This last resource is particularly important for France, in that Kazakh uranium currently represents 40% of the fuel for French nuclear power plants.

Paris is actively strengthening ties with Central Asia, advancing cooperation on nuclear power and the construction of new trade routes. In recent weeks, the Elysée Palace has also received the heads of state of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. But despite European efforts to encourage their decoupling from Russia, regional governments are trying to maintain dialogue with the Kremlin: the day before his visit to the Elysee Palace, the Kazakh President went to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin.

30/11/2022: Death of Jiang Zemin, the heir and architect of China’s opening-up dynamic -Anna Balawender-

On November 30, Jiang Zemin, President of the People’s Republic of China from 1993 to 2003, passed away after suffering from leukemia and organ failure. Heir to the «reform and opening-up» policy initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, Jiang Zemin continued to ease censorship, loosen control policies over Chinese society and economy, and paving the way for the birth of pluralism in civil society in the 2000s.

In the aftermath of his death, China’s national newspapers ran a black-and-white front-page story of the official national tribute, covering the repatriation of his remains from Shanghai to Beijing. But the event takes on a particular color in that it comes at a time when Chinese society is going through multiple crises: the restrictions linked to the management of Covid are weighing more and more heavily on the economy; technological and commercial competition with the United States is posing unprecedented challenges to its government; and finally, part of the population of China’s megalopolises has taken to the streets to explicitly question the legitimacy of the government. The tributes to the late leader are coupled with regrets for a time when society enjoyed greater freedom; they are, like the subtle messages shared on social networks in recent days – such as an excerpt from a speech, a quote from an author, or a song like Bob Marley’s Get up, Stand up – a roundabout way of criticizing the policies of the current Chinese government.

Geopolitically, the death of a head of state is not without resonance either. While many governments and political representatives have sent their condolences to Beijing, the South China Morning Post notes that Washington, New Delhi and London have remained silent on the matter. This silence is probably in line with the Anglo-Saxon governments expressing their distrust of Beijing in action (protectionist policies, banning the receipt of donations, cutting off investment or banning certain Chinese companies, among others). It is also worth noting that Jiang Zemin’s death occurred on the very day of a summit organized by the China International Development Cooperation Agency on cooperation in the Indian Ocean; 17 state representatives had been invited to this conference, but none from New Delhi.

30/11/2022 – Intrusion of Russian and Chinese fighter planes into South Korean airspace – Vadim Leduc Argenta – 

Russian and Chinese «strategic warfare» aircraft (including Russian Tupolev-95 long-range bombers and Chinese H-6 bombers) have penetrated South Korea’s air defence zone in a joint exercise.

The Guardian reports that on Wednesday 30 November, the South Korean government announced that it had detected two Chinese and six Russian fighter planes. Specifically, Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the planes repeatedly flew in and out of the Korean air defence identification zone. South Korean forces reacted and responded by scrambling these fighters.

An air defence zone is an area where countries only require foreign aircraft to take special measures to identify themselves. Thus, SCMP explains that Moscow asserts that it is within its rights: «Russian and Chinese aircraft acted strictly in accordance with the provisions of international law». Moscow therefore does not recognise the Korean Air Defence Zone. As for Beijing, the zone is not a territorial airspace and all countries should be able to enjoy freedom of movement.

These manoeuvres are therefore worrying not only South Korea but also Japan and its self-defence forces, which sent fighter planes after Chinese bombers, joined by two Russian drones, flew from the East China Sea into the Sea of Japan.

These events are reminiscent of the last May 24, when China and Russia flew six bombers over Japan’s territorial waters. Japan’s defence minister said at the time that the exercise was what he believed to be a protest against a QUAD summit, involving Japan, the US, Australia and India, held on the same day in Tokyo.

01/12/2022: Trip of the President of the European Council to Beijing -Anna Balawender-

The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, went to Beijing on December 1st to meet with the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping. While the Chinese government is facing a challenge to its legitimacy unmatched in three decades, the European high representative did not change his plans despite the call that morning for a crackdown on protests by the Party’s Legal Affairs Committee – «when one is invited by the Chinese President, does one say ‘no’?», commented a European official quoted by Euronews. On his arrival, the Chinese leader was keen to give his own explanation of the cause of the popular movements: the demonstrators “are protesting because they are frustrated after three years of Covid”. Omicron being less deadly than the Delta variant of the Covid19 virus, China could consider, according to Xi Jinping, «more openess in the restrictions».

The core of the discussion focused on the state of human rights in Xinjiang, but also and above all on the conflict in Ukraine: the President of the European Council hoped to push the Chinese head of state to use his influence to change Russian policy in Ukraine. Charles Michel also mentioned bilateral trade issues. This particular subject is all the more hotly debated as US parliamentarians have just passed a law aimed at fighting inflation, but also turned against China; nevertheless, the clauses of this law translate into a series of protectionist measures that will inevitably have an impact on the European economy. And despite the strategic affiliations linking the United States and Europe, French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Washington failed to sway the Biden administration’s decision.

During the bilateral meeting, Xi Jinping said: «solving the Ukrainian crisis through political means is in the best interest of Europe and the common interest of all countries in Eurasia. […] Under current conditions, we must avoid escalation and expansion of the crisis and work for peaceFrance24 indicates that the Chinese President has made similar statements in the past.

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