Diplomatic and Systematic Disruption in China
Wolf warrior diplomacy was the Chinese dragon stepping out of the Great Wall and flexing its muscles, testing its might. At home, it clearly helped Xi Jinping's vision of China taking its rightful place in the world, but outside the wall, not so much.
Over the last decade, the confrontation between the US and China has increased as the latter aspires to take over the US’s position in the current world order. The tensions between Washington and Beijing are steadily but surely rising. So far, the conflict between the two giants has largely been diplomatic, ideological, and symbolic. Both nations are pushing their own narratives about the ideal world order and how the other is trying to undermine it.
China has primarily played a reactive role in this confrontation. Reactive in the sense that it has not actively criticised Washington, Beijing's criticism and jabs at the US have come as responses to American views and comments on Chinese policies. Of course, there are some exceptions, but the US generally plays the role of questioner or accuser, while China refutes and makes counter-allegations. The style of Chinese responses to the US has changed over the last decade. The tone and language of China’s Foreign Ministers, Foreign Ministry spokespersons, and state-controlled media like Global Times have been indicators of changes in China’s rhetoric.
At the beginning of the last decade, between 2011 and 2014, Chinese responses and criticism maintained diplomatic decorum. They had assertiveness but not aggressiveness. It is to be noted that Xi Jinping became the Chinese President in 2013, and like any new leader, especially in authoritarian countries like China and Russia, he utilised his first few years of power, consolidating it at home rather than projecting it outside. Xi had launched the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, and it remained the focus of his foreign policy for the first few years.
The rise of wolf warriors
A major change came in 2017, when Donald J. Trump walked into the White House as the victorious 45th President of the United States. Known for his quite open, frank, and direct approach to things, Trump’s statements and views were quite challenging to handle and respond to, not only for the American diplomatic community but for their allies as well. But no country felt the heat as much as China did. Trump was openly against the current trade structure between the US and China. He did not hesitate to call China an economic and military challenge to US supremacy, and he was ready to act on it. Trump led the trade and tariff war with Beijing, which was truly a turning point for bilateral relations. Trump’s tweets and speeches only deteriorated relations with the Chinese.
It is a one thing to reply to any other head of a state but how does one reply to the President of the United States, the most powerful and influential nation on the earth? This was the real question for Chinese foreign policy makers as it was for other nations that came under fire from Trump.
China found its answer in the film released in the same year, i.e., in 2017, Wolf Warrior 2, a typical hard-line patriotic film about a PLA soldier, which became a harbinger for a new type of diplomacy, which was aggressive in rhetoric, confrontational in communication, and coercive in overall nature. Wolf warrior diplomacy, as it came to be known, actually began developing before 2017. But it truly became mainstream during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chinese ambassadors, diplomats, government officials at home, state-sponsored media figures, and other state-supported media entities were the wolf warriors of this approach. The confrontation with other states was coordinated and well planned by the Communist Party of China (CPC) rather than being individual work. There was no lone wolf; it was always a pack working together. The hunting grounds for wolf warriors largely remained confined to social media, especially Twitter and the news media in general. Very rarely, the wolf warrior approach transcended from words to actions, and that too with small and helpless nations like Fiji, where Chinese officials got into scuffles with their Taiwanese counterparts.
Wolf warrior diplomacy was the Chinese dragon stepping out of the Great Wall and flexing its muscles, testing its might. At home, it clearly helped Xi Jinping's vision of China taking its rightful place in the world, but outside the wall, not so much. Experts around the world, even from the Chinese mainland, believe the wolf warriors did more harm than good. It did not affect powerful nations like the US and the EU and their efforts to limit Beijing; in fact, the West became more united against China. The coercive style of diplomacy affected the smaller nations mostly in a counterproductive way. These nations were pushed away instead of being pulled under the Chinese sphere of influence.
The Pelosi turning point
When Biden became the US President in 2021, Beijing would have certainly hoped for more bearable relations and cooperative dialogue, and they were proven right. Biden cooled down the trade wars and focused more on communication and cooperation rather than going on a full-on offensive like Trump had. But US policymakers, regardless of them being red or blue, have understood the challenge that China poses to American interests, and that they have to act on it. Under the Biden administration, things may have become more covert and strategic, but the pace of putting pressure on Beijing has not slowed down. Biden has merely prioritised the issues over which the US wants to confront China.
By this time, wolf warrior diplomacy had run its course; it was proving to be counterproductive to Chinese influence and foreign relations, and with a new administration in the White House which believes in good dialogue and cooperation, there was no point in throwing punches below the belt. Though economic confrontation cooled off a little bit, political tensions were still on the rise, and there was a need to find a new way of diplomatic engagement.
When the speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States, Nancy Pelosi, landed in Taipei, Taiwan, in August 2022, despite the continuous pressure and threats from Beijing, it marked a great realisation for the CPC; aside from violating the Air Defence Identification Zones (ADIZs) of Taiwan with a couple of jets (which they do often), there was nothing else that Beijing could do.
Wolf warriors watched helplessly as Pelosi addressed the Taiwanese parliament. Despite the aggressive posturing, the CPC leadership was not at all ready to actually confront the US. After Pelosi's visit in December, Wang Yi, a stalwart bureaucrat of Xi Jinping who had controlled Chinese foreign policy and approach since 2013 and steered the whole wolf warrior strategy, was removed as China’s Foreign Minister. This was a sign that a major shift in China’s foreign policy was expected.
After the spy balloon incident in February, the divide and lack of trust between Washington and Beijing had never been so wide. Military-to-military communication between the two nations, which was already going south, was then completely shut down by China.
Fight the enemy where you aren’t: China’s Ghost Diplomacy
Over the last six months, China has severed its lines of communication with the United States. Despite US efforts to maintain dialogue, China is refusing to reopen hotlines or take any other initiative to rebuild mutual confidence. Without open lines of communication, there is a risk of misinterpretation, and the US is concerned about it.
The Chinese leadership realised when Pelosi visited Taiwan, that there is limit to their aggressive approach. Now, US policymakers have realised similarly, that they want to keep pressure on China but not push it to the edge. Without any dialogue, US is unable to understand or expect a Chinese course of action. Both the US and China are engaged in a battle over the control of critical technologies like semiconductors and AI. The US is imposing export bans and sanctions, while China is responding by tightening its grip on the supply of rare earth minerals and other raw materials. This tech war is cutting industries from both sides, but Xi Jinping doesn’t have to worry about the industry lobby and its pressure as much as Joe Biden does. Despite this, the Biden administration is pushing the tech war, but they have to take into account the concerns of the American industry and thus act cautiously. Moreover, most of the US military's focus is currently in Europe and Russia, and the Pentagon, it seems, doesn't want to stretch its resources to the Indo-Pacific just yet.
And that's why it becomes very important for the Biden administration to maintain communications with Beijing. The White House has been sending its top guys to Beijing since May. CIA director William Burns was the first to attempt to convince the Chinese to reset relations on his secret trip to Beijing. This was followed by a very high-profile visit by the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. He met with top Chinese diplomats and President Xi himself. A productive conversation happened, but the trip overall was neither a breakthrough nor a disappointment. Blinken could not convince the Chinese to reopen military communication channels.
In July, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen landed in Beijing on a four-day visit. "The world is big enough for both the US and China." Her remarks really showed Washington's commitment to bringing China back to the table for dialogue. Yellen also emphasised de-risking, not de-coupling, as did Blinken. This visit was also considered a progress in bilateral ties, but nothing substantial came out of it.
Veteran diplomat and former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger’s visit to China in the latter half of July came as a surprise—possibly a good one. Kissinger holds a certain weight in the diplomatic community and especially in China, as he helped normalise US relations with China in the 1970s amidst the Cold War. Xi Jinping calling him "Old Friend" shows a 100-year-old diplomat still has influence over there. Kissinger’s visit was private and not an official one, so there are not any actual breakthroughs. Though goodwill has been built, how much of it transforms into actual action remains to be seen.
Disruption in China
While both countries are engaged in diplomatic hide and seek, there is major upheaval going on in the CPC and, by extension, in China itself. Last year's CPC crackdown on big tech giants is just getting over. Now CPC military commanders and experts related to the Rocket Force, Strategic Support Forces, Central Military Commission, and Military AI are either being removed, under investigation, disappearing, or dying in mysterious circumstances. Qin Gang, who replaced Wang Yi as Foreign Minister, has also been removed and has not appeared in public since. Wang Yi has reassumed the position. The anti-espionage law, which was recently amended, is quickly turning into a nationwide movement. The CPC wants to mobilise the whole nation to counter espionage. What that means for a total surveillance state like China is worrying. This major disruption within the party and throughout the nation is not new to China. Xi Jinping has personally experienced the effects of the Cultural Revolution. What this means is not clear. But after witnessing the fallout of Russian might in Europe, it is safe to say that Xi Jinping is taking time to recalibrate the CPC structure in his favour and reassert his power and authority across the nation.
Conclusion: A great repositioning?
What goes on behind the Great Wall and inside the CPC is hard to fully understand, but all the evidence suggests a great repositioning is underway. The CPC (Xi Jinping) is trying to fill the gaps and possible cracks in its armour. Taking lessons from Russia and preparing for any and all worst-case scenarios that can happen in the near future - in this scenario, the silence of wolf warriors is therefore more frightening than their war cry.
Mandar is pursuing a master's in IR and Strategic Studies at the University of Mumbai. He follows China's policies, both domestic and international, closely. He has also published articles on defence, the global economy, food security, and the outlook of various Indian industries.
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