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May 28, 2021 – Stealth War 39: COVID-19 Origins; China-Lithuania Relations; Dalai Lama

By: Jamestown Foundation

Fri May, 2021, Age: 3 years



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May 28, 2021

Welcome to the Stealth War Newsletter, a collection of the top 5 recent news items, collected on The Jamestown Foundation’s new website, To continue to receive this weekly collection, click the button below to subscribe.  

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Strategic Indicator
This issue’s number to watch

65 percent

Proportion of global bitcoin mining based in China as of April 2020. China recently unveiled draft proposals to crack down on cryptocurrency trading to curb electricity consumption and money laundering.

This Week:

* China’s CMC Rejects Overtures for Meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense

* Biden Directs U.S. Intelligence Community to Investigate the Covid-19 Lab Leak Theory

* Lithuania Takes a New Hardline Approach to China

* China’s New Tibet White Paper Sparks Controversy as New Tibetan President-in-Exile is Sworn in

* And China Stymies Taiwan’s Vaccine Campaign Amid a Coronavirus Surge on the Island

Top Stories

The Financial Times reported last Friday that Chinese officials had rejected multiple requests from the U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to speak with China Military Commission (CMC) vice-chairman Xu Qiliang. U.S. defense officials confirmed the FT’s report on the same day it was published. In addition to the stand-off over Austin’s request, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff has also not talked to his counterpart since Biden was sworn in.

An anonymous source, citing the sensitivity of the matter, told the South China Morning Post that Austin should be reaching out to his Chinese counterpart, Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, rather than Xu, who is the second highest leader of of the CMC, a parallel party-state organ which commands the People’s Liberation Army and is chaired by Xi Jinping. Both military leaders report directly to Xi. In the more public-facing role as defense minister, Wei deals with military diplomacy, but Xu is seen as having more power and influence with Xi. The Global Times, a state-affiliated nationalistic tabloid, complained that “China sent a friendly signal for talks…[when Austin] took up his post on January 22,” which was ignored, and that Austin’s subsequent request was “an unprofessional and unfriendly act of disregarding diplomatic protocol and international common practice.”

A CRS report from earlier this year notes that military-to-military relations between the two superpowers have often been in flux. Chinese international relations experts consulted by SCMP suggested that under normal circumstances, context is more important than job titles. “The two countries would care not about their negotiating partners’ official titles but about their executive authority,” the international relations professor Zhu Feng said. But as military competition has ramped up in the South China Sea and particularly near the Taiwan Strait, regular communication mechanisms have lapsed, particularly after heated diplomatic talks in Anchorage in March. This raises concerns that growing tensions could lead to a conflict.

Although analysts argue that both sides are used to frequent encounters in the region and have taken steps to avoid direct provocations, it is undeniable that the pace of military competition is increasing overall. The defense consultancy Long Term Strategy Group recently predicted that “the annual dollar value of PLA procurement is on course to eclipse that of the U.S. military by 2024,” and that “China could soon outgun the U.S.”

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden asked the U.S. intelligence community to pursue an investigation into the origins of SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. His request comes amid renewed consideration of the possibility that the virus was accidentally leaked from a research laboratory in Wuhan, China. Most scientists believe that the coronavirus most likely jumped from an animal vector to humans, but there has been an increasing consensus that the lab leak theory cannot be ruled out either. The World Health Organization’s team of experts that investigated the pandemic’s origins in February largely dismissed the theory in their report on Phase One investigations into the virus’ origins. More recently, global public health leaders have called for it to be considered in follow-up phase two investigations. In response to this narrative shift, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called the lab leak theory a “conspiracy” and accused the United States of “[ignoring] facts and science.”

In an environment of rampant politicization of the disease, the theory was long dismissed as a fringe conspiracy, even as President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders promoted the hypothesis on social media. It gained traction again when The Wall Street Journal reported that three scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were admitted to a hospital with symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Facebook recently reversed a decision to take down posts about COVID-19’s artificial origins, acknowledging the shift in public discourse.

In recent weeks, Lithuania has taken several measures to adopt a tougher stance on China. On May 20, the Lithuanian parliament passed a resolution declaring China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as “genocide” and called on the United Nations to investigate internment camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Members of parliament also called on China to scrap its Hong Kong National Security Law and open talks with the Dalai Lama. This week, Lithuania officially withdrew from the ‘17+1’ bloc, a China-led forum with former Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe. Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis accused China of attempting to divide the European Union and called on his peers to exit the group as well. Eleven countries remain in the forum.

Lithuania also passed amendments to bar telecommunications providers deemed “unreliable” from operating in the country, effectively banning Chinese firms such as Huawei and ZTE from participating in national 5G networks. Lithuania has also taken other steps to remove Huawei’s existing equipment domestically, joining the United States’ campaign to exclude Chinese telecommunications firms from global networks due to data security concerns. Its hardline stance further indicates a breakdown in relations between the European Union and China broadly. In response, an op-ed in Chinese state newspaper Global Times warned Lithuania to stop “[inviting] trouble.”

On May 23, the Chinese government released a new White Paper on Tibet. May 23 marks the 70th anniversary of the 17 Point Agreement, which ended the de facto independence of the Tibetan state, and brought the region under the control of the People’s Republic of China. The Tibetan government-in-exile, officially the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), has said that the agreement is illegitimate because it was made under duress by Tibetan officials under pressure from Chinese military forces.

The 17 Point Agreement expressly stated that “The central authorities will not alter the existing political system in Tibet. The central authorities also will not alter the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama.” But the recent White Paper restated Beijing’s long-held policy that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) holds the authority to approve the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. The White Paper also claimed Beijing has assisted in creating “villages of moderate prosperity” in Tibet, bringing it out of its previous “feudal” state. The paper reiterated common Chinese talking points that Tibet is an “inseparable” part of China, and vowed to root out “separatism” in the autonomous region.

The release of the White Paper also coincided with the swearing in of the new Sikyong, or President, of the CTA on May 27. Penpa Tsering was elected to the role on May 14, succeeding Lobsang Tenzin, the first President of the CTA, who had served since 2012. Tsering previously served as the Speaker of the CTA’s Parliament-in-exile. He has advocated for continuing the “Middle Way” approach presented by the Dalai Lama, which argues for communication with Beijing to find a “mutually beneficial, negotiated, non-violent solution to the Sino-Tibetan conflict.” However, Tsering has also been outspoken in the past on his fears of a cultural genocide inside Tibet, and has pushed back against Chinese claims that they have the authority to choose the next Dalai Lama. Sikyong Tsering has said that “we [the CTA] are open to sending people to [Lhasa] to verify all the claims made in the White Paper.”

This is unlikely to happen. The last contact between PRC officials and the CTA took place in 2010. Beijing considers the CTA illegitimate and the Dalai Lama to be a separatist working against Chinese interests.

Finally, as the island of Taiwan is in the grip of its first major Covid-19 surge since the start of the pandemic, the government has imposed tough restrictions on social gathering and is now scrambling to secure vaccines. Less than 2 percent of Taiwan’s population is vaccinated, and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen said that while the island had secured deals to procure supplies of the the UK’s AstraZeneca and the US’ Moderna vaccines, negotiations for Germany’s BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine had stalled “because China has interfered.”

BioNTech has an exclusive deal with the Shanghai-based Fosun pharmaceutical company to distribute its Covid-19 vaccine to “the Greater China region,” including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Beijing has denied trying to block vaccines to Taiwan and offered to supply Taiwan with vaccines as a goodwill gesture. Although the central government did not accept this offer, Taiwan has relaxed its vaccine import restrictions, allowing local authorities and businesses to procure doses from China on their own. Taiwan also took delivery of 150,000 Moderna doses from the American Institute in Taiwan on Friday, while Japan announced that it would consider sharing some of its AstraZeneca supplies with Taiwan as well.

Disinformation researchers have reported that coronavirus misinformation—much of it traceable to the mainland—surged amid the outbreak. “Starting from May 12 (the day after Taiwan declared community transmission), there has been a lot of disinformation that is trying to trigger panic locally,” said the head of the Taipei-based DoubleThink Labs. A recent report found that Beijing-linked actors had widely spread misinformation concerning the coronavirus and Taiwan’s 2020 elections, aiming to suggest “that democracy had failed in Taiwan, while using false coronavirus claims in an attempt to disrupt political processes and degrade social trust.” But China’s gray-zone pressures against Taiwan have prompted a growing international backlash. Support for Taiwan participation in the World Health Assembly, from which it has been excluded since 2016, has grown, and there was a strong campaign to invite Taiwan to attend the May 24 WHA meetings that ultimately did not succeed.

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