The Failure of China’s Wolf Warrior Diplomacy

17 June 2020 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

Having encountered increasing pushback from countries that oppose what they perceive to be Chinese predatory economic tactics, its manipulation of World Trade Organisation rules to benefit itself and its overall aggression, in general, Beijing embarked on a new tactic, the so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. The term itself derives from a Chinese action movie, which was released in 2015, in which Chinese warriors fight against enemies of China, led by an American mercenary and, unsurprisingly, defeats him. (A 2017 sequel called “Wolf Warrior 2” continued the theme and had the by-line, “Even though a thousand miles away, anyone who affronts China will pay”.)

That tough stance was adopted by Chinese diplomats fairly quickly. Thus, when the Attorneys-General of Missouri, California and Florida filed suits in American courts against China over its handling of the initial spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, hit back, saying, ‘These frivolous lawsuits against China over COVID-19 have zero basis in fact, law or international precedent. They are utterly shoddy. … We will strongly hit back against malicious slanders and firmly defend national honour and dignity. We will lay out the truth to counter the gratuitous smears and to firmly uphold justice and conscience.’ Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian suggested that the United States military could have brought the novel coronavirus to China and that it did not originate in Wuhan.

Its heightened-aggression does not appear to have paid dividends, however. It appears, in fact, to have had quite the opposite effect.

Comment

China had banked on countering the efforts of individual countries that sought to push back against its efforts to enhance its profile internationally. Under Chairman Xi Jinping, Beijing believed that it could do that by using its economic heft and its military strength to counter those efforts. When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, for instance, called for an international investigation into the origins of the pandemic, China’s Ambassador to Australia hinted very strongly that Australia could pay a price for its temerity, saying, ‘And also, maybe the ordinary [Chinese] people will think why they should drink Australian wine or eat Australian beef.’ Shortly after, when Canberra showed no sign of withdrawing its statement, China banned beef imports from four Australian abattoirs and suspended imports of barley from Australia. It is possible that Beijing may have sought to off-set its agreement to increase imports from the US by US$200 billion ($291 billion) by purchasing barley from American farmers while making a point to Canberra, but it needs to be asked, if that were the case, why not purchase American beef as well, instead of from Russia?

China, in similar fashion after British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said that he would remove Huawei’s technology from the UK’s telecommunications networks by 2023, threatened to walk away from building nuclear power plants and a high-speed rail network there.

Unfortunately for China, however, the world appears to have recognised that it may be countered by creating alliances to carry out that task. A recent report noted that the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US – are drawing even closer together in their own effort to block China. That report follows another, published in 2018, that noted that Germany, Japan and France were also being inducted into a loose coalition against China.

It would also appear that other coalitions, albeit comprising most of the same countries, are working in other ways to balance China. In the wake of China’s ban on Australian barley, for example, Australia entered into an agreement with India to sell its barley there. Another outcome of the negotiations held between Prime Ministers Modi and Morrison was that both countries would provide greater access to each other’s military bases. That would eventually allow for greater interoperability between them and military exercises in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Since India and Australia individually have joint exercises with the US, it is a logical step for them to have joint exercises as well. That would appear to indicate, again, a greater integration of the Quad coalition members – Australia, India, Japan and the US.

The US is, simultaneously, ratcheting up the pressure against China, flying sorties over Taiwan, forcing a Taiwanese integrated circuit fabrication plant to terminate sales of computer chips to Huawei, etc. Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary-General, meanwhile has warned against China’s increasing footprint in and the threat that it poses to Europe. In the US itself, apart from the various tariffs that he imposed on goods manufactured in China, President Trump is now targeting the export of expertise to China. He has restricted the entry of Chinese graduate students in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics, if they are believed to have any ties to the Chinese Communist Party, into the US. He has, furthermore, increased investigations into American scientists and academics who are believed to assist Chinese research efforts. Minus American expertise, China’s research efforts will undoubtedly slow down.

China’s aggressive diplomacy, in short, has been a disaster for the country’s standing abroad and it is likely that it will be replaced sooner rather than later.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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