Is China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy in retreat? Perhaps in words, but not actions

4 Min
Is China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy in retreat? Perhaps in words, but not actions

In recent years, “wolf warrior” has become a catchphrase describing an increasingly assertive and combative style of Chinese diplomacy. Named after a series of nationalistic Chinese action films, this strident approach had caused consternation in some political circles and the international media.

That said, over a year ago amid a deteriorating relationship with the West, observers started to notice shifts in China’s approach, especially at the rhetorical level, after President Xi Jinping urged Chinese officials to “tell the China story well” and build a more “lovable” image of China globally. Just weeks ago, China’s new foreign minister Qin Gang expressed his admiration for the American people and vowed to push forward bilateral relations.

These rhetorical shifts could also be seen in China’s response to the Ukraine war. Having earlier criticised the United States and Nato for stoking tensions between Russia and Ukraine to a breaking point, recent official statements now emphasise constructive means to de-escalate the conflict through peaceful dialogue without reference to any party.

Earlier this year, Qin emphasised that China-Russia ties are based on “non-alliance” and “non-targeting of any third party”. And in an interview with the Post, China’s Ambassador to the European Union Fu Cong even said China is ready to say it has a “no limits” partnership with the EU, downplaying Beijing’s oft-criticised “no limits” partnership with Moscow.

This shift away from the usual combative tone may have to do with the economic challenges at home – contracting demand, supply shocks and subdued domestic expectations. Internationally, China’s wolf warrior diplomacy contributed to a general rise in unfavourable opinions on the country.

Meanwhile, US sanctions in the hi-tech industry pose significant challenges to China’s goal of becoming technologically self-sufficient. Pragmatic considerations probably drove China to strive for better international relations despite geopolitical and ideological differences with some countries.

For instance, in recent high-level meetings with the Philippines and Vietnam, strengthening economic ties featured as the most prominent theme despite competing claims in the South China Sea.

These efforts, which are aimed at projecting a positive international image and stabilising some bilateral relations, are likely to reduce China’s overly hawkish rhetoric. However, Beijing is expected to remain assertive in its actions, especially on matters it perceives as core interests.

In late November last year, the Chinese Coast Guard was reported to have forcibly seized the debris of a Chinese rocket that the Philippine navy was towing to an island in the South China Sea. Beijing’s explanation that the debris was returned after a “friendly consultation” seemed to differ from Manila’s account of what transpired.

In December, the Philippines expressed concern over a report of China undertaking fresh artificial-island-building activity around the Spratly Islands, though Beijing had since dismissed the report as “completely untrue”.

Fundamentally, there are no signs of Beijing walking back from its nine-dash line, which has been a source of recurring conflict over fishery and energy resources between China and other claimant states. It remains to be seen how Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea will play out.

On the Taiwan issue, Beijing launched large-scale military exercises encircling the island and imposed various sanctions on Taiwan following then US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August last year. Since then, it has stepped up similar exercises.

In late December, Beijing held another massive military drill near Taiwan – 47 warplanes reportedly made incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone – after US President Joe Biden signed the National Defence Authorisation Act which looked to strengthen US-Taiwan security cooperation. Beijing condemned the US and Taiwan’s moves as escalations of “collusion and provocations”.

China’s most recent drill this year also saw 23 warplanes cross the median line of the Taiwan Strait.

More recently, as China opens its border following a decisive shift away from its zero-Covid policy, several countries imposed restrictions on Chinese travellers, citing the lack of comprehensive information from Beijing on Covid-19 variants in the country and concerns about new waves of infection caused by travellers from China.

Given these considerations, World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the restrictions “understandable”. However, Beijing viewed such measures as “discriminatory” and threatened to take retaliatory measures.

It suspended the issuance of regular visas, port visas and visa-free transit for South Korean and Japanese travellers. Japan’s Foreign Ministry said the move was “out of proportion”. Analysts expect China to adopt similar measures against other countries.

The appointment of Qin Gang as China’s foreign minister and the transfer of prominent wolf warrior Zhao Lijian, Foreign Ministry spokesperson, to a less visible role in the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs could be seen as signs of a change in China’s foreign policy.

Though Qin has been more moderate recently, it was not long ago that he wrote an incendiary note to a US senator, saying he was “arrogant and despicable”. Zhao’s transfer could be intended to shift him out of the limelight temporarily; as deputy director of his department, he still holds sway over contentious issues that have long plagued China’s foreign relations.

To conclude, even as Beijing tones down its rhetoric, it is unlikely to shy away from asserting its position on claims it views as legitimate. This is especially so on high-profile issues, such as Taiwan and the South China Sea, where detractors sometimes view Beijing’s actions as aggressive.

Without the combative rhetoric, can this approach to Chinese foreign policy still be construed as “wolf warrior diplomacy”? Ultimately, it depends on how one defines this phrase.

by Tiong Wei Jie/ Li Mingjiang in SCMP, Jan 27, 2023