China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ Diplomacy is making less room for Panda Huggers

 By Dr. Amrita Jash
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China’s diplomacy under the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting a change in tone from what Henry Kissinger described as “subtle and indirect”.[1]  In addition, Beijing’s diplomacy was long guided by Deng Xiaoping’s maxim of Tao Guang Yang Hui of ‘hide and bide’. However, COVID-19 has exposed China’s departure from both these approaches, as China’s new posturing is defined as “Wolf Warrior diplomacy”- an assertive approach named after a popular Chinese nationalistic film where Chinese special-operations fighters defeat western led mercenaries. In this case, it is the Chinese diplomats that have become the fighters, when the world is sounding China.

The context lies in China’s handling of the Wuhan epidemic that has put Beijing  under a global scrutiny. While China’s stringent measures in terms of lockdown, travel restrictions, testing through no-contact measures through robotics, 5G, drones, health codes, AI and others did receive applaud; but what gained traction is speculations and criticism over Beijing’s lack of transparency in dealing with the virus as well as reluctance in raising early alarms over the epidemic. This has led to a global call for ‘make China pay’ against the virus outbreak.

Against this scenario, the response to the ‘blame game’ against China, has sparked a significant change both in behaviour and rhetoric of China’s diplomats as noted in their “increasingly more strident and combative” display of attitude.[2] The frontrunners being Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokespersons Zhao Lijian and Hua Chunying who are vociferous in the hit back against any form of criticism against Beijing- defending the Chinese thesis that the ‘virus is recorded in China but has not originated in China’. Most striking aspect is that the diplomatic spat is not just limited to government platforms, but Beijing’s hawkish display is most actively noted in western social media platforms mainly Twitter, Facebook, Instagram amongst others, which to note are banned in China. Highlighting China’s new found ‘Twitter diplomacy’, the precedence to the ‘wolf warrior’ approach was set by Zhao Lijian. Putting counter blame on the US, Zhao on 12 March tweeted that “it must be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan”- tail spinning the virus story.[3] Furthermore, cracking down on the accusation of faulty Chinese medical kits, Zhao on 20 March vehemently posted: “if someone claims that China’s exports are toxic, then stop wearing China-made masks and protective gowns”.[4]

Following suit to Zhao are Chinese Ambassadors across the world. Of which, most notable is China’s Ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, who issued a warning to the host nation by stating: “China might boycott Australian goods” if the Australian government-backed an independent international investigation on the origins of the virus.[5] If not ‘use of force’, but China’s diplomatic pressure is highlighting its coercive approach- evading Beijing’s peaceful metaphors of ‘shared destiny’.

However, other than the blame game, ripple effects are also witnessed in China’s other diplomatic spheres. For instance, the biggest pushback against China came from African nations in response to the pandemic control measures against African nationals in Guangzhou. In reaction, Chinese Ambassadors in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, and the African Union – were summoned by their hosts to explain the racist and discriminatory treatment of Africans in China.

COVID-19 has indeed pushed China’s diplomatic envelope. To argue, with courtesy replaced by tough talks, China’s emissaries are using assertive nationalism to thwart the global backlash against its handling of the pandemic- making China look ‘undiplomatic’. However, in the Chinese view, such acts suggest that “[t]he days when China can be put in a submissive position are long gone. China’s rising status in the world requires it to safeguard its national interests in an unequivocal way”.[6] But, is China still standing tall. Here, the big question is: Are China’s ‘wolf warriors’ winning the game of spat?

Indeed no, given it has become a reactive rather than responsive diplomacy. It is calling for greater dangers for China in the longterm by hindering its global image and most importantly, its great power interests and ambitions. First, it defies the notion of ‘responsibility’ in which China has long been accused. Such a defensive posture only reinforces the ‘China Threat’ suspicion against ‘China’s peaceful rise’. Second, China’s such an act is seen as a defence against its own domestic audience wherein a strong nationalist approach is seen as the key to maintain the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China. Here, a corollary can be drawn to China’s rise of nationalism in the post-Tiananmen period. Third, the diplomatic spat has decoupled the Sino-US relations- an antithesis to Zbigniew Brzezinski’s idea of ‘G2’ but confirming the inevitable nature of the Thucydides’ trap, as Graham Allison suggested that ‘a likelihood of war is a real possibility’. Fourth, China is entering into a phase of global isolation as witnessed in countries re-thinking on diversifying the supply chains to reduce dependency on China and China-based manufacturing countries by shifting production units out of China. For instance, countries such as the US, Japan, South Korea, and others plan to shift manufacturing into countries such as Thailand, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, Taiwan, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

Therefore, China today is confident which is driven by its own acknowledgment that it is a great power and its actions does make a difference- both constructive and disruptive. To which, China’s so far branding of itself as the ‘Panda’ has lost its glory under the mantle of Wolf Warriors. With no constructive addition, it has severely dented China’s global image and this time the recovery will neither be easy nor quick. Thereby, to prevent further derailment, it is in the best interest of Beijing for its diplomats to ‘tone down’ their approach- thus, bringing Beijing’s diplomacy on a stable track. 

End Notes

[1] Cited in Henry Kissinger (1994), Diplomacy, New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 725.

[2] “West feels challenged by China’s new ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy”, Global Times, 16 April 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1185776.shtml, accessed online 17 May 2020.

[3] Cited in Ben Westcott and Steven Chen (2020), “Chinese diplomat promotes conspiracy theory that US military brought coronavirus to Wuhan”, CNN, 14 March 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/13/asia/china-coronavirus-us-lijian-zhao-intl-hnk/index.html, accessed online 17 May 2020.

[4] Cited in “China says ‘not a penny’ but a ‘political virus’ received from U.S.”, CGTN, 21 March 2020, https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-03-21/China-says-not-a-penny-but-a-political-virus-received-from-U-S–P2cpwaZQmA/index.html, accessed online 17 May 2020.

[5] “Coronavirus: China’s new army of tough-talking diplomats”, UK News Media, 13 May 2020, https://traptown.com/united-kingdom/, accessed online 17 May 2020.

[6] “West feels challenged by China’s new ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy”, Global Times, n. 2.