A New Era for China’s “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy”

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Credit: Daderot / Public domain

China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” is entering a new era as tension rises in Chinese foreign affairs. The strategy, deployed to defend Chinese interests abroad, is named after a popular 2015 series of patriotic action films made in China entitled “Wolf Warrior” and “Wolf Warrior 2.” The films  emulate the blockbuster Hollywood fictional character, John Rambo, who first appeared in the 1982 film “First Blood” starring Sylvester Stallone as Vietnam War veteran. The “Wolf Warrior,” in turn, portrays a team of People’s Liberation Army soldiers deployed in an African country to rescue Chinese civilians. The film’s tagline was: “Even though a thousand miles away, anyone who affronts China will pay.” The Chinese imitation of the Hollywood popular movie series represents the “wolf warrior diplomacy” as a new variant of aggressive foreign policy and international relations by Chinese diplomats to defend China’s national interests in the global arena, often in a hostile manner.

In a recent commentary for Foreign Affairs magazine, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said: “Whatever China’s new generation of ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats may report back to Beijing, the reality is that China’s standing has taken a huge hit. Anti-Chinese reaction over the spread of the virus, often racially charged, has been seen in countries as disparate as India, Indonesia, and Iran. Chinese soft power runs the risk of being shredded.”

Rudd’s sentiments were echoed by the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, who responded that China would now push back against deliberate insults. “We never pick a fight or bully others. But we have principles and guts. We will push back against any deliberate insult, resolutely defend our national honor and dignity, and we will refute all groundless slander with facts,” said Wang, responding to a question from CNN.

In his appraisal of China’s foreign policy,  Andrew J. Nathan, a professor in Chinese politics, at the Columbia University explains that China’s foreign policy interests stem from the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. In 1954, the Chinese communist regime set forth these philosophies when it was interacting with the non-communist nation-states in Asia and beyond. These Chinese ideals are still binding today as they bid a new proposition to the ever-changing American-led global order, Nathan remarks

According to Nathan, “China’s alternative design for the world stresses the equal, uninfringeable sovereignty of all states large and small, Western and non-Western, rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian, each to run its own system as it sees fit…Thus, the core idea behind the Five Principles as interpreted by China today is sovereignty – that one state has no right to interfere in the internal affairs of another state.” Even though these ideals reflect the Chinese traditional worldview, with the notion of “wolf warrior diplomacy,” China attempts to pursue aggressive diplomacy in which it views the concept of international relations through the lens of undisputed hegemony over the entire world.

In her research, Professor Erin Baggott Carter at the University of Southern California builds upon Nathan`s description of Chinese foreign policy by saying that aggressive Chinese foreign policy can be a means of galvanizing Chinese domestic support behind the regime as much as it is about defending China’s “interests” abroad. Moreover, Carter suggests that “diversionary aggression may account for as much as 40 percent of all conflict that the Chinese government initiates with the United States.” A good example of this is China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian responding to the origin of coronavirus outbreak in March this year, tweeted furiously: “It might be (the) US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” By so doing Lijian attempts to add fuel to the fire in already fragile and worsening US-China relations.

To make matters worse, in 2018, for example, by eliminating the two-term limit on the presidency and efficaciously allowing himself to remain in power for life, President Xi Jinping made enemies among the ruling class within the Communist Party of China. Because of this Xi faces profound threats from senior members of China`s ruling elite. To escape from these dilemmas, Professor Carter argues, Xi will pursue a foreign policy that embraces diversionary aggression, whereby Beijing will adopt “more aggressive, destabilizing, and unpredictable foreign policy.” Chinese aggression was apparent in the more recent tensions in the China-India border dispute that turned violent for the first time in more than four decades, in which India claimed that 20 Indian troops killed in action  pointed to a “deliberate” Chinese act that “reflected an intent to change the facts on the ground in violation of all our agreements to not change the status quo.”

In a recent analysis of the military approaches of the United States and China, Jon B. Alterman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes that “the United States has been fighting but not winning in the Middle East for 20 years, while China has been winning but not fighting for 20 years. That captures much of the last two decades in a nutshell…” However, Alterman drove his point home in his argument at the end that the United States should not replicate the Chinese approach in global politics, but at the same time, it should learn from it.

Over the last 20 years or even more, U.S. foreign policy and its military doctrine have been in parallel with and are defined by the “law of the hammer,” commonly known as Maslow’s hammer. Simply put, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This concept is relied on excessively  in advancing US foreign policy interests, with the hammer being military might. In contrast, during that same period Beijing has been motivated by the philosophy that emerged during the Han Dynasty. However, it is worth noting that “wolf warrior diplomacy” might be a departure from that traditional viewpoint of Chinese strategy that was foretold by its ancient military philosopher, Sun Tzu, that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

That said, the majority of the Western nations’ foreign policy is mostly leaning towards or is shaped by a combination of soft and hard elements of power projections,  coined by political scientist Joseph Nye as “smart power” mobilization. Alternatively, in an investigative report into Canadian-Chinese bilateral relations, a group of research fellows at the Balsillie School of International Affairs argues that the communist and authoritarian Chinese regime and its policymakers seem to wield neither hard nor soft power, but what Nye calls “sharp power,” including cyberwarfare, industrial espionage and intelligence operations that are designed to meddle in the domestic political affairs of foreign democracies. One case in point is Sri Lanka, where the Chinese regime is involved in devious debt diplomacy and a possible covert intelligence operation to advance its foreign policy agenda.

Earlier this year, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reemphasized to Reuters that Chinese foreign policy is aligned with its founding father and communist revolutionary Mao Zedong’s motto that “We will not attack unless we are attacked….But if we are attacked, we will certainly counter-attack.” On the contrary, the new aggressive Chinese “wolf-warrior diplomacy” negates this notion. In doing so, it reflects a gradual change in modern Chinese diplomacy from the way it was under Mao. Although the rhetoric coming out of Beijing may have not shifted significantly, the tactics and practices of the regime certainly have. Most importantly, Chinese “wolf warrior diplomacy” might face setbacks and perhaps even backfire if it is more pugnacious and aggressive. In that case, it runs the risk of becoming like American foreign policy from the past twenty years: brawny but ineffective.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.