Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Great Distraction

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 23, 2020 --  

Bad actors on the world stage are using the global pandemic as cover to get away with even more evil deeds than usual.

When Chinese troops confronted Indian soldiers building a road in a disputed Himalayan border region, things got out of control quickly.  Fighting that began June 15 left dozens dead, amounting to the most serious conflict between the world's most populous nuclear armed nations since their 1962 war over the same barren highlands.1

China's assertive behavior along the Indian frontier is no isolated incident.  The country has seized the moment of a lull in the global pandemic to advance on all fronts.  In Hong Kong, the central government has illegally imposed an anti-sedition law to crack down on the restive population.   In the South China Sea, a Chinese vessel reportedly rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat in disputed waters, briefly capturing its crew before forcing it to limp back to Vietnam.    And in the Taiwan Strait, mainland military aircraft have approached the Taiwan air defense zone four times in recent days before being chased off by Taiwanese fighters.3

Whether or not all these cases are part of a coordinated plan, they certainly are the consequence of a general policy set by China's President Xi Jinping, who has made increased assertiveness a hallmark of  his rule.  While China's rivals are distracted by responses to the pandemic, now is a prime opportunity to seize new ground.

China is not alone in this kind of behavior.  Russia, having belatedly bent the curve in its own outbreak of the pandemic, is also seizing the moment.  Russian MiG fighter jets have arrived in Libya to support an insurgency against a UN-backed faction in Tripoli.4 And Russia has renewed domestic efforts to push a change in the constitution  that will allow President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule beyond term limits requiring him to step down in 2022.5

In Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro's obedient Supreme Court is taking assertive action to disarm the opposition -- replacing the leaders of opposition parties with government loyalists and unconstitutionally staffing the Electoral Council with more government supporters.6

Even bad boy U.S. allies are getting in on the action. Israel's government has repeatedly voiced plans to annex large chunks of territory in the occupied West Bank. While originally mooted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last September as far-fetched but base-rallying election plank, a surprise turn of events made it plausible. First, his chief election opponents partially endorsed the idea out of cynical pandering. Then the Trump administration expressed its openness to the idea out of ideological zealotry. The lack of sufficient international pressure to stop it -- largely due to world distraction by the coronavirus -- means that right-wing Israelis may be able to push it through before a hard November deadline. That deadline, of course, is when the Trump administration faces possible defeat by former Vice President Joe Biden who opposes annexation.

In each of these cases, bad actors on the world stage are seizing the moment offered by the great distraction. The first months of global panic and focus on emergency response have given way to opportunistic thinking. The global pandemic has proven an incredible smokescreen to allow despots and charlatans to advance globally unpopular agendas that would under normal circumstances cause serious political blowback.

For responsible world leaders, the continued challenges of pandemic response mean continued focus on the public health emergency. Unfortunately, the leaders would otherwise protest international injustices are the very ones most likely to have their heads down with a focus on public health. So long as responsible world leaders' focus remains elsewhere, expect ever more evil deeds from the bad boys of the world.

Related Web Columns:

A Tragic Loss, May 26, bad


1. New York Times, How China and India Came to Lethal Blows, June 19, 2020

2. The Maritime Executive, Chinese Vessel Rams Vietnamese Fishing Boat in S. China Sea, June 23, 2020

3. Nikkei Asian Review, Chinese J-10 Fighter Jet Advances on Taiwan as Tensions Rise, June 20, 2020

4. AlJazeera, Russia Flew 14 MiG 29s and Su-24s to Libya: US Army, May 27, 2020

5. Russia Uses Prizes and Patriotism to Push Vote to Change Constitution, June 21, 2020

6. CNN, Venezuela's Maduro Tightens Grip on Power, Helped by Coronavirus Lockdown, June 19, 2020