It is with this background in mind that the following three articles should be read. They show a defensive trend among China’s experts. Some of the best-known speakers on the Beijing international relations circuit do warn, in fact, about an overstretch: angering many partners at the same time, weaponizing mask diplomacy, and more importantly underestimating America’s real strategic capacity in the Western Pacific are mentioned.
But there is also much rationalization of China’s new diplomatic behavior, and also a shift to focus almost exclusively on the United States as the cause of all ills. In the first category, although the term wolf warrior is denied1, it is acknowledged that wolves exist in the world, and China needs to put up a response to the many attacks it suffers from the West. The second aspect represents a recent shift in China’s diplomatic discourse. Although there have been very hostile expressions since the start of the China-US trade conflict in 2017, 2020 marks an intensification and a personalization of polemics with the United States. Chinese ambassadors abroad have shifted (in France, Poland and Sweden) from general aggressive tactics to a narrower focus on denouncing the United States. Beijing had remained very careful of personality attacks. It has now repeatedly attacked US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and a recent speech by China’s Foreign affairs Wang Yi on US-China relations mentions American "whims", likely a veiled reference to the US president. At the height of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and as troops were deployed around the White House, China’s official media abandoned all remaining restraint and began ridiculing Washington.
This new focus finds more consensus among experts, who follow the indictment of the US but suggest moderate lines of response. In the case of the South China Sea, this means an accent on economic diplomacy, rescue at sea, and a disproportionate optimism regarding the current round of negotiations of the Code of Conduct with ASEAN. The essential issue – China’s refusal to acknowledge international arbitration, its take-over and expansion of atolls and their militarization, is conveniently tucked away. It is US freedom of navigation exercises which are the destabilizing factor to the status quo: never mind that this status quo was established by force in the last decade...
Is this all-out focus on the United States a strategic shift, or just a convenient waiting exercise in a US election year, when the Trump administration has also made some high profile moves on China? It is hard to discern at present. What is clear is that the older generation of Chinese experts is actually more comfortable with traditional Cold War rhetoric than with the Cultural Revolution echo of wolf warrior diplomacy.
1 It is actually derived from the 2004 Wolf Totem novel (狼图腾 or Lang Tuteng), a struggle for life tale set in Inner Mongolia which argues that the Chinese behave too much like sheep in front of wolves.
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