Local developments in China in 2019 will reflect on its foreign policies in 2020, especially on matters concerning the world’s most powerful countries or blocs of countries – the US, Russia and the European Union.
The first of the three main developments that took place in China in 2019 was the wave of unrest and demonstrations that erupted in Hong Kong in mid-March. Unrest in China followed the Hong Kong government’s bill in February 2019 allowing the extradition of wanted defendants to the central government in Beijing. Although there were practical reasons behind the introduction of this law (the absence of extradition agreements between Hong Kong and foreign parties), the protesters saw it as a precursor to the Beijing government’s interference in Hong Kong’s independent legal and judicial system in a way that might pave the way to undermining the city’s autonomous system and the principle of “one country, two systems” that governs the relationship between Hong Kong and the Beijing government.
Although other protests had earlier erupted in Hong Kong, the movement that started in mid-March last year was the strongest and largest. The Hong Kong government had to withdraw the extradition law as a result, but this did not lead to the end of the protests because the withdrawal of the law was only one of the demands of the protesters.
The Hong Kong protests received widespread Western political and media attention, sparking Chinese reservations. Beijing maintains a number of traditional principles in dealing with this type of issue, especially its refusal to allow others to interfere in its domestic affairs and its claims that the protests were a Western plot. There was also the threat of the use of force through the deployment of Chinese military forces near Hong Kong’s borders. However, these principles did not mean that the 2019 protests ran any risk of being ignored, given the number of those involved and their willingness to adopt measures such as closing the Hong Kong International Airport in August.
The decision to withdraw the law by the Hong Kong government was an indication of the inability of the Chinese state to impose its will in the face of the protests. It also served as an indication of there being a ceiling on the potential use of military force against protesters. This is significant given the Chinese nation’s sensitivity towards issues related to Chinese sovereignty, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The second development in China last year was the issue of the Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province of northwest China during the last quarter of 2019, up to the issuance of a resolution by the European Parliament on 19 December condemning the Uighurs’ exposure to what the Parliament described as “abusive practices” by the Chinese government, which has locked up more than 1.8 million Uighur Muslims in concentration camps since April 2017.
The resolution called for facilitating the access of international journalists and observers to Xinjiang. More important, however, was the widespread attention on social media in the Arab and Islamic world, which led to a noticeable interest on the part of the Chinese government and its embassies in the Arab and Islamic world in responding to allegations raised about the conditions of the Uighurs and to offer examples of positive Chinese policies towards them.
Much like the Hong Kong protests, the Uighurs issue constituted additional pressure on China, not only from the European countries, but also from the public opinion of the Arabs and Muslims (whom China regards as friends). The raising of the issue by the European Parliament was another indication that despite the significant development in relations between the two sides within the framework of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, this has not saved China from being pressured as a result of its treatment of minorities.
The third development was the decline in the growth rate of the Chinese economy during 2019 to reach its lowest level for the past three decades, recording six per cent during the third quarter of the year and indicating the possibility of deflationary pressures. This decline cannot be attributed entirely to the repercussions of the trade war with the US. There are also domestic pressures that cannot be ignored, the most prominent of which is the persistence of the problem of over-capacity in a number of important economic sectors, such as iron, steel and cement.
These three developments will have an impact on Chinese foreign-policy issues in 2020, including:
1- China’s continued eagerness to avoid direct confrontation with the US, whether in close proximity to China in the Asia-Pacific region and the South China Sea or in other regions such as the Middle East. An analysis of the Chinese response to the Iran-US crisis may indicate the Chinese approach. China has expressed cooperative tendencies regarding ensuring freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, regardless of its actual participation, and it has called on the parties to the crisis to exercise restraint after the escalations that took place during the first week of January 2020 between Iran and the US despite Chinese interests in Iran. This approach is part of a Chinese strategy to protect its increasing influence.
2- Expanding procedures for promoting Chinese soft diplomacy, especially in the Arab and Islamic world, in various forms such as educational missions and the teaching of the Chinese language as a primary measure against similar pressures to those being mobilised by the Uighurs issue in the future.
3- A continued focus on implementing the various elements of the Belt and Road Initiative, in both its land and maritime sectors. It is expected that less weight will be given to the land element of the Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, given the deteriorating security situation. However, Egypt, the East Africa region, southern Europe and the Mediterranean are not expected to be affected in the maritime part of the initiative, given their relative distance from the crisis areas, in addition to the European interest in pushing the initiative and its land and sea components forward.
4- Continued Sino-Russian coordination, especially in the expansion of joint military exercises on the high seas. However, this coordination is not expected to advance to higher levels in the event of further crises in which Russia has been playing a pivotal role, among them the Ukrainian crisis, the Syrian crisis and the Libyan crisis in which Russia seeks to reproduce its role in Syria, according to some analyses. This is because of China’s keenness to avoid engaging in acute polarisation or direct confrontations with the US.