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China Trends #6 - The Mirage of China's Wolf Warrior Diplomacy

ARTICLES - 7 August 2020

The hardline diplomatic tone adopted by some senior Chinese officials in the past year has caused controversies and raised many questions surrounding the aims of China’s foreign policy. The perception in the West and China’s own description of China’s diplomacy style diverge significantly. While Western officials and analysts denounce excessive Chinese aggressiveness, Chinese officials and experts reject the use of the term "wolf warrior diplomacy". The denial is often targeted at the term "wolf warrior diplomacy", while at the same time the shift in China’s diplomatic style is recognised to a certain extent.The recognition of the change is generally accompanied by a justification: the unfriendly international environment China is exposed to. In an interview, Ruan Zongze, Executive Vice President of the China Institute of International Studies, argues that "wolf warrior diplomacy" is a distorted and misleading interpretation of China's diplomacy which attempts to deny China's right to defend its legitimate rights and interests1. He asserts that China needs to shape the international environment in its favor, and this has nothing to do with "wolf warrior". Also in defense of this shift in tone, Liu Xiaoming, China's ambassador to the UK, claims that "the reason why Chinese diplomats have to fight wolf wars is because there are wolves in this world (因为世界上有狼,中国外交官才要做"战狼")"2.

Liu Xiaoming, China's ambassador to the UK, claims that "the reason why Chinese diplomats have to fight wolf wars is because there are wolves in this world (因为世界上有狼,中国外交官才要做"战狼")".

In the more specific context of Sino-US relations, Wang Jisi, President of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, notes that the attitude of the Chinese government, think tanks, media and public opinion towards the United States has changed significantly in the past two years, a trend accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis3. For a long time before that, China-US relations were seen as a top priority, with the belief that the principle of "hiding talent and biding time (韬光养晦)" should be upheld in policy towards the US. Today, these views have faded from the mainstream public opinion platform and have been replaced by the idea that China should adopt a tit for tat policy approach and retaliate against all hostile US moves. Wang Jisi also predicts that Sino-American information, public opinion and diplomatic wars will become the new normal, China will no longer tolerate attacks from the US and will not hesitate to confront the US.

Not all Chinese experts praise this increasingly aggressive diplomatic style. Shi Zhan, Professor at China Foreign Affairs University, takes the quality issue of masks exported from China as an example4. He points out that when being questioned about the quality of masks, threatening to no longer provide masks is not the correct response. Masks should not be "weaponized". China should be more cautious as such aggressive behavior risks isolation from the rest of the world.

Shi Yinhong, Professor at Renmin University’s School of International Studies, and Zhu Feng, Dean of Nanjing University’s Institute of International Relations, both conclude that aggressive foreign policy does not serve China’s national interest5. According to Shi Yinhong, China is currently having conflicts with several developed countries, especially with Australia and Canada, while its relationship with Russia appears to be less promising. In the current context of COVID-19 crisis, China should allocate its resources towards critical areas and avoid making enemies. Shi Yinhong’s assessment is echoed by Zhu Feng, who goes back to the nature of diplomacy. Diplomacy is not about "lashing out (怒怼)" at others. It is an art of persuasion and influence, and there is a need of making choices and selections (有所取舍,有所甄别).

However, in the assessment of Shi Yinhong and Zhu Feng, the US seems to be an exception. Shi Yinhong argues that avoiding conflicts with others is about concentrating China’s resources. Both analyses of Shi Yinhong, Zhu Feng and Wang Jisi, despite having opposite starting points, foresee an increasingly hard stance of China against the US. By contrast, Yuan Nansheng, Vice President of the Chinese Association for International Relations and former Ambassador to Zimbabwe and Party secretary of China's Foreign Affairs University, warns against the risk of strategic misjudgement, especially vis-a-vis the US and the misconception that the US is in decline6. He points out that Chinese citizens are now paying more attention to international affairs, and there is a market for a more offensive diplomatic style as a result of a sentiment of national pride and confidence in the strength of China.

However, he stresses the risk of appeasing public opinion: "History has shown that foreign policy hijacked by public opinion inevitably leads to disastrous results". In addition, Yuan Nansheng argues that "hiding talent and biding time" does not imply being weak. He explains that in diplomacy, it means dealing with other in a humble manner and "keep the sword in the scabbard (把宝剑插进刀鞘)". There is no need to show the sword as others know that China has one. "China should develop its diplomatic strength, not simply become tougher (中国外交应该强起来,而不是单纯的强硬起来)".

Chinese citizens are now paying more attention to international affairs, and there is a market for a more offensive diplomatic style as a result of a sentiment of national pride and confidence in the strength of China.

On the other hand, some Chinese experts look into the issue of China’s challenges at a global level. For Zhao Kejin, Deputy Director of Tsinghua’s Center for U.S.-China Relations, and Qi Zhenhong, President of China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), one of the biggest challenges faced by China’s diplomacy is the extent to which the world is able to understand and accept China’s development.

Zhao Kejin argues that China is currently "big but not strong (大而不强)" and "rich but not superior (富而不优)", and this has caused a series of diplomatic incidents7. Those include the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute, the South China Sea dispute, China-US trade frictions, and the China-India border confrontation. In the eyes of Chinese experts, as China approaches the center of the world stage, it has triggered a chain reaction in the international community. Theories of "China’s threat", "China’s debt trap", "China’s neo-colonialism" have become popular, and various strategic moves to obstruct China's rise or generate skepticism and doubts regarding China’s ultimate intentions are frequently made. This includes the criticism of China’s diplomacy style. In other words, China is facing the issue of non-acceptance in the international community. As a solution, Qi Zhenhong advocates greater communication and exchanges with political parties, think tanks, scholars, and media in other countries, in order to build a consensus on a new type of international relations8.

Some Chinese experts dismiss the likelihood of a new cold war, based on their belief that China does not aim to become a hegemonic power. According to Wang Cungang, Professor at Nankai University, China’s constant mention of its anti-hegemonic foreign policy on the reports of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China should be taken as a strong and valid proof of China’s position9. He also argues that China belongs to a new model of major countries (新型大国), and is not at all a great power in the traditional sense (绝非传统意义上的大国). Therefore, China will never follow "the beaten track of big powers in seeking hegemony" (国强必霸). According to Ruan Zongze, Executive Vice President of the China Institute of International Studies, China is currently "rolling a boulder uphill (滚石上山)" and it would be unwise for China to provoke conflicts or disputes10. He also adds that no single country has ever led the world in the past, and this will never happen in the future. Hence, the concern over China’s intention to be in a leadership position in the international order is unnecessary.

According to Ruan Zongze, [...] no single country has ever led the world in the past, and this will never happen in the future.

In the current context, Cai Tuo, Director of the Center for Globalization and Global Issues Studies at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law, underlines that cold war thinking should be avoided since a new cold war would not solve the problem caused by political differences11. In addition, according to Yuan Nansheng, a new Cold War means complete US-China decoupling, which is impossible to realise in terms of trade. Unlike the Cold War period, the current climate of global economic interdependence makes it no longer possible to create two parallel economic systems and markets.

In sum, Chinese experts acknowledge the change in China’s diplomatic style. The defenders argue that China has been placed in a difficult position and forced to act aggressively to protect its own interests. Others argue that China’s aggressive diplomacy style is counter-productive. Given that China is still not accepted by the international community, China should be in conflict avoidance mode and is not in a position to be confrontational. Finally, there is a strong emphasis on China’s commitment to avoid a new cold war, which is not in line with China’s goal and will inevitably harm China’s interest.

 

 

1"Wang Yi talks about ‘War Wolf Diplomacy’ for the first time. What is the logic behind China's current diplomacy? (王毅首谈"战狼外交",当下中国外交背后有怎样的逻辑)", The Paper, 24 May 2020, https://m.thepaper.cn/yidian_promDetail.jsp?contid=7550262&from=yidian.
2"Ambassador to Britain: Chinese diplomats have to fight wolf wars is because there are wolves in this world (驻英大使:因为世界上有狼,中国外交官才要做"战狼")", Beijing Daily, 24 May 2020, http://www.bjd.com.cn/a/202005/24/WS5eca85fde4b00aba04d1e437.html.
3Wang Jisi, "U.S.-China Relations under the Covid-19 Pandemic (新冠疫情下的中美关系)", Aisixiang, 8 April 2020, http://www.aisixiang.com/data/120783.html.
4"PKU Diplomacy School Professor: ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’ misleads the country (北大博士外交学院教授:"战狼"误国)", China Business Focus, 28 April 2020, http://www.cbfau.com/appxg/cbf-201587830.html.
5"Shi Yinhong: Will China lead the world post Covid-19? Shi Yinhong: On the contrary, China should strategically hold tight (时殷弘:"疫后中国将领导世界? 时殷弘:相反,中国应战略收缩")", Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, 28 July 2020, http://www.rdcy.org/index/index/news_cont/id/679855.html.
6"Senior Diplomat Yuan Nansheng: The pandemic is changing the world order, preventing strategic miscalculation (资深外交官 袁南生:疫情改变世界秩序,防止发生战略误判)", Ling Xun, 28 April 2020, https://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=1665206137556762919&wfr=spider&for=pc.
7Zhao Kejin, "70 Years of Chinese Diplomacy: Historical Logic and Basic Experience (中国外交70年:历史逻辑与基本经验)", Northeast Asia Forum, No. 2, 2019.
8"Developing innovative theories of international relations and promoting a fair and mutually beneficial international system. China's Diplomacy is Proactive, Progressive and Responsive (发展创新国际关系理论 推动国际体系公平互惠 中国外交主动应变 进取担当)", China Daily, 21 July 2020, https://china.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202007/21/WS5f16aaa1a310a859d09d931a.html.
9Wang Cuigang, "The Hundred-Year Unprecedented Change and the Chinese Communist Party's Diplomatic Leadership (百年未有之大变局与中国共产党外交领导力)", World Economics and Politics, No. 5, 2020.
10Ruan Zongze, "The Warmth, Splendor and Dynamism of China's Diplomacy (中国外交的温度、亮度与力度)", Global Times, 26 May 2020, https://opinion.huanqiu.com/article/3yO5FPWujSO.
11Cai Tuo, "The game between rationality and irrationality - Symptoms and Responses to the Great Global Change (理性与非理性的博弈——全球大变局的症结与应对)", Exploration and Free Views, No. 1, 2019, http://www.aisixiang.com/data/114880.html.

 

 

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