China apparently is putting all possibilities of a what a post-COVID world may look like on the table in their internal discussions. A report crafted by the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), was leaked to Reuters on May 4. It details how Beijing is facing an ever increasing level of hostility, which could result in confrontation with the United States.

What is CICIR?

China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), is a think tank. The institute falls under the oversight of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), the intelligence arm of the Chinese government.

What’s in the report?

The report, according to Reuters, tells the Chinese leadership that given the number of U.S. lives lost and the ravaging of the U.S. economy, the U.S. administration has been flaming criticism of Beijing and discussing additional economic penalties to punish Beijing for their initial handling of the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in Wuhan.

A “sensitive report” wasn’t need to see the public discussion taking place in the U.S. re COVID-19 and China’s role.

Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, in an interview with Affaritalini, was asked if he agreed with the U.S. President’s assigning blame on China for COVID-19. While Conte showed a great deal of diplomacy in his response, he left no doubt that he expects that once “all necessary information has been acquired, it will be inevitable to ascertain any responsibility in the management of the pandemic.”

While it may be premature to conduct a full-on investigation into the point of origin of COVID-19 with more specificity than “Wuhan,” it will be appropriate to have an international review to come to global agreement.

At this time, the consensus is the COVID-19 evolution was naturally occurring. Where portions of the international community and China differ is on the role, if any, of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in launching the global pandemic.

China propaganda and saber rattling

Rare is the leak of the contents of a sensitive document in China to the media. The laws of China are sufficiently fluid that such an action could be viewed as an act of espionage. More likely, the unidentified sources on the content of the report were “leaking” the most extreme scenario as a part of the overall Chinese propaganda effort.

Instead of Beijing looking for ways to be conciliatory, their efforts to ridicule and criticize the response of other nations, including the U.S., has served to burn bridges at every turn. There is no denying China’s prestige has taken a severe hit – they have lost face. Calls for reassessing China’s position in the global supply chain are at their peak. Additionally, many within the international community are, like Conte calling for the investigation and some are putting together strategies to punish China via a demand for reparations given the global economic damage.

China is holding a hot potato, and has no options for passing it along.

The international community wasn’t the primary audience for this leak. Yes, one could argue the leak was designed to throw water, rather than gas, on the global backlash by pointing out a potential and highly improbable scenario – armed conflict. The audience for this leak was the domestic audience.

The CICIR’s opinions and scenarios feed the Chinese leadership domestic narrative on US – China relations. The US wants to slow China’s assent in the international community. China’s economic expansion is at risk. China’s military is up to the task of defending the homeland. China has the ability to flex its military muscle into the blue sea.

Indonesian’s Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, expressed to the South China Morning Post her concern that the activities by the US and China may escalate tensions when global cooperation concerning COVID-19 was essential.

Marsudi was speaking within the context of the activities of the Chinese navy, and their uptick in exercises within the South China Sea as well as postponement of the talks between China and the ASEAN nations to create a “code of conduct” concerning the sea.

Militaries and strategists conduct contingency planning; they do this every day. Does it come as a surprise to learn that China is putting together a contingency plan which may include an armed conflict, with the US or others?

Rather, the leak is in keeping with China’s “Wolf Warrior” style of diplomacy – heavy on nationalist themes and full of economic or aid threats within the context of international engagement. The New York Times notes that numerous Chinese ambassadors have been summoned by their host governments to answer accusations ranging from spreading of misinformation to racism in China.

China is trying very hard to make lemonade out of the lemons it finds itself holding, and right now the lemonade is quite sour.

This is saber rattling.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of securelytravel.com
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