In recent years, China has become famous for “wolf warrior diplomacy,” an assertive diplomatic tactic that goes as far as insulting or threatening those deemed to violate China’s interests. Wolf warrior diplomacy has been widely used in the past few years, particularly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, this assertive diplomatic strategy has undercut China’s global image and further exacerbated its relations with countries across the world, ranging from Europe to Asia. Therefore, a change must be made to better secure China’s interests.
Change in the Winds
In May 2021, China’s President Xi Jinping told senior officials in a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that it is crucial to manifest a positive image of China in order to constantly expand China’s circle of friends. “It is necessary to make friends, unite and win over the majority, and constantly expand the circle of friends [when it comes to] international public opinion,” said Xi. He also said that China should be “open and confident, but also modest and humble” in its communication with the world.
His speech posed a marked contrast with the style of wolf warrior diplomacy in the past few years. It was a first signal of the policy shift away from China’s wolf warrior diplomacy, as Xi himself and its administration were increasingly aware of the backlash brought by Chinese diplomats’ more assertive stance. At the time, China was facing the continuing deterioration of its relationships with the United States, the European Union, and Australia. On top of that, China was receiving soaring discontent from countries around the world.
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Another symbolic move made by Xi to gradually alter the course of China’s diplomacy was the appointment of China’s new ambassador to the United States: Qin Gang, a former vice foreign minister who was once responsible for Latin American and European affairs. Qin’s predecessor, Cui Tiankai, was a veteran diplomat with robust knowledge of U.S. affairs and personal connections with incumbent and former U.S. government officials and lawmakers. By contrast, Qin’s lack of diplomatic experience regarding U.S. affairs made him a surprising pick for this position.
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There were two critical reasons for Xi to make this unanticipated appointment. First, Qin was previously in charge of Xi’s diplomatic schedule and accompanied Xi and other top Chinese officials on multiple diplomatic trips. Clearly, he was trusted by China’s leadership circle, including Xi himself. Xi thus preferred someone who has more direct access and a personal relationship with him to handle the most pivotal diplomatic mission for China.
Second, as Xi called for shaping a positive image of China weeks before Qin’s appointment, Xi expected to utilize Qin’s experience as a spokesperson and director of the Ministry of Information Department to relay a “good image” of China as well as bring fresh air in the China-U.S. diplomatic arena amid the long-term tension.
Although some media portrayed Qin Gang as a wolf warrior diplomat before he took up his post in Washington. D.C., he is clearly not. Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief Melinda Lu described Qin in August 2021 as “remarkably even-handed, especially given the tattered state of Sino-U.S. ties.” Qin’s diplomatic approach is obviously milder than most people expected but meshes with Xi’s stance on engendering a good image of China. Indeed, Qin has directly denied the notion of wolf warrior diplomacy numerous times since his inauguration. For instance, he told journalists that Chinese diplomats are not “wolf warriors” and claimed the job description for every new Chinese diplomat is peaceful diplomacy instead of wolf warrior diplomacy.
Consequently, looking back on Xi’s comments, Qin’s appointment, and the new U.S. ambassador’s subsequent “anti-wolf warrior” comment, it was clear by 2021 that the intention was to progressively phase out wolf warrior diplomacy.
China’s Diplomatic Approach to Europe and the Indo-Pacific Is Shifting
This year, other signs also indicated the decline of China’s wolf warrior diplomacy. China is now turning to positive interactions with measured diplomatic manners to improve its ties with other nations and shelving the wolf warrior style of diplomacy.
In May, Wu Hongbo, the special representative of the Chinese government for European affairs, embarked on a three-week trip to Europe with the aim to alleviate the China-EU tensions that were further exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Differing from his adamant stance on certain issues during his previous trip to Europe in November 2021, Wu took a different approach this time. At every stop, Wu conceded China’s “mistakes,” with wolf warrior diplomacy included on the list. A European business leader who was involved in the meeting with Wu said, “The Chinese want to change the tone of the story, to control the damage.” He added, “They understand they have gone too far.”
In July, while attending the G-20 foreign ministerial meeting in Indonesia, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met respectively with Germany and France’s foreign ministers. Despite the concern about China’s alignment with Russia, its stance on the Ukraine crisis, and previous disagreements, both sides oriented themselves toward advancing bilateral cooperation instead of disputes. Based on Wu’s change of attitude between his two European trips and Wang’s words in recent meetings with his German and French counterparts, China is changing its diplomatic approach to gain trust from Europe in order to revamp relations.
Notably, China has changed its diplomatic approach not only toward Europe but toward neighbors in the Indo-Pacific as well. In March 2022, Xi spoke with South Korea’s president-elect Yoon Suk Yeol, who had vowed to pursue a pro-U.S. foreign policy and a tougher stance on China. Xi’s call with Yoon was consequential given he broke the long-time rule that the president of China does not call other nations’ presidents-elect. At the time, China-South Korea relations were facing lingering challenges. After a dispute over the deployment of THAAD, U.S. missile defense batteries, to South Korea in 2017, China’s image in South Korea reached a record low: Eight out of 10 South Koreans hold an unfavorable view of China. This unfavorable view was further exacerbated at this year’s Beijing Winter Olympics.
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The unusual call from Xi to president-elect Yoon was contrived to demonstrate China’s “goodwill” for the purpose of mending relations between the two countries. Xi’s call also served as a quiet demonstration of waning wolf warrior diplomacy because it contradicted the strong stance held by China’s ambassador to South Korea, Xing Haiming. Last July, Xing and Yoon were involved in a diplomatic row on the THAAD issue. The Chinese ambassador took a strong stance on this issue and penned an inflammatory column titled “South Korea-China relations are not an accessory to South Korea-US relations.” His comments attacking a South Korean presidential candidate ahead of an election were heavily criticized by the Korean government and media.
Xing’s attitude on THAAD and other issues, however, softened after Yoon was elected in March. His sudden change of stance alongside Xi’s call with Yoon in March evinced the refinement of China’s diplomatic approach to South Korea. Once again, China is slowly walking away from wolf warrior diplomacy.
South Korea is not the only example of this trend. In January 2022, Xiao Qian, a former Chinese ambassador to Indonesia with a reputation for a more professional communication style and moderate tone, was appointed as China’s new ambassador to Australia, displacing five-year diplomat Cheng Jingye. Since Xiao’s service began in January, he has been vocal about restoring good relations between the two countries. For example, Xiao said in an event held at the University of Technology Sydney’s Australia-China Relations Institute, “These are the areas where we should continue to conduct constructive dialogue, to minimize the differences if possible, and to enlarge our common grounds if possible.” By replacing Cheng, China was able to signal its willingness to proactively repair the relations with Australia as well as modify its aggressive diplomatic approach.
Moreover, when China’s Foreign Minister Wang met with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong on the sideline of the G-20 foreign ministerial meeting in Indonesia in July 2022, Wang told his counterpart that “China is ready to re-examine, re-calibrate, and reinvigorate bilateral ties in the spirit of mutual respect, and strive to bring bilateral relations back on the right track.” Such words were overtly moderate in comparison with the comments and policies made by the Chinese government in the past two years, once again divulging its plan to curb the wolf warrior diplomacy.
The Party Congress Will Cement the Future of China’s Diplomacy
Admittedly, it is true that there are some wolf warrior diplomats remaining in the current Chinese government, such as Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian. However, it is clear that China’s use of wolf warrior diplomacy toward other countries is gradually decreasing and is being replaced with more positive diplomatic interactions. Though wolf warrior diplomacy is waning, Chinese diplomats will keep relaying strong messages on issues such as Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea to protect China’s “core interests.”
This fall, the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will take place in Beijing. Numerous serving diplomats are expected to be replaced, including China’s top two diplomats: Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission General Office Yang Jiechei and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. As Xi is expected to secure a third term as party chairman, we should expect the Chinese diplomatic approach to lean more toward his stated desire to “create a loveable image of China.” For this reason, we can expect wolf warrior diplomacy to further diminish after this fall with new diplomatic leadership in place.