For many, Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s European tour at the end of August ostensibly signaled a moratorium on China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy. His European tour – which commenced, perhaps not coincidentally, in Italy, one of the more pro-China European states – has been packed with conciliatory episodes in which he attempted to emphasize China’s openness to diplomatic engagement and dialogue. Many sympathetic to the country’s historical taoguang yanghui (keep a low profile and bide your time) strategy would note that such a change is vital in restoring China’s international credibility.
From insisting that Sino-European ties ought not buckle under Trump’s administration’s pressures – thereby construing the two parties as seeming allies united in opposition to American hegemony – to highlighting the economic prospects of the battered Belt and Road Initiative in Italy to the somewhat iconic elbow bump between Wang and his Norwegian counterpart Ine Eriksen Soreide, it’s apparent that China is seeking to rehabilitate its European image and rekindle many dampened flames.
Keen China-watchers may find themselves musing over these drastic transformations. From a hyper-combative approach filled to the brim with defensiveness and bombast, China has apparently switched to subtler tactics in attempting to reclaim the moral high ground in international discourse – especially in light of the rather opportune instability proliferating in the United States, and ignominious scandals closer to home, in both cross-straits relations and Hong Kong.
The “Nascent” Charm Offensive
This seemingly “nascent” charm offensive, however, is neither an abrupt, spontaneous project, nor unexpected given China’s recent political trajectory. For the past three years, the country has sought to cultivate and deepen multifaceted commercial ties with regional players and local partners across strategic corridors – with Europe high on its list of priorities. The European Union, with its expansive market (the second largest in the world), pre-eminent geopolitical location, and historical legacy as the buffer zone between the United States and Russia (and China), constitutes an ally that China has long sought to win over, whether it be via unilateral infrastructural subsidies, bilateral trade deepening, developmental aid granted toward countries in the south and eastern periphery of Europe, or prominent media campaigns seeking to convey the country’s ardent embracing of its European “brothers and sisters.” Such efforts – along with the COVID-19-fueled zeitgeist of 2020 – culminated in the controversial mask diplomacy campaign launched earlier this year, which sought to deliver resources and medical aid to European countries floundering in the pandemic.
The charm offensive spearheaded by back-to-back visits from diplomats Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi is hence merely a continuation of this ongoing campaign, in which Beijing seeks to accomplish several core objectives. The first is to articulate clearly the conditionality of economic and trade agreements. European countries who have been more amicable toward the state and demonstrably engaged in trade agreements and discussions (e.g. Italy, Serbia, Spain) are rewarded with greater access to the recovering economy and offered closer integration within China’s international economic alliances. In contrast, countries who have adopted apparently provocative and outspoken stances over China’s “internal affairs” are warned with the prospective consequences of economic withdrawal and technological severing. On this front, the double-edged nature of Wang’s rhetoric was well-noted: European diplomats have taken to openly affirming the values that they espouse on matters ranging from Hong Kong to Chinese citizens’ political rights, whilst treading cautiously lest they crossed irrevocable “red lines” in their prescription and advocacy.
The second objective is to assuage states’ concerns over Chinese communications technology. After meeting with Wang, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that he would not ban Huawei (unlike his counterpart across the English Channel), but would favor European 5G systems. Likewise, Germany held back from offering a conspicuous, wholesale rebuke of the tech firm. Yet the picture is not all that rosy for China – Huawei remains largely unpopular in the Central and Eastern European region, namely in light of the delicate balancing act that states there must engage in between closer economic ties with China, and being shunned or abandoned by NATO, which operates as a security umbrella defending them against Russia. Moreover, the U.K.’s Huawei ban could well be joined by more allies, should the tech firm fail to make significant headway in rendering its technology compliant with emerging legal requirements.
The final objective is to re-establish China’s perceived credibility as an economic partner and political ally in the aftermath of COVID-19. The Chinese entourage went to painstaking lengths to highlight China’s “strong and stable” economy. From repeatedly referencing multilateral collaboration and institutions (echoing Xi Jinping’s statement at Davos in 2016), to reiterating the country’s commitment to finalizing the China-EU investment agreement (for which Xi has come under increasing pressure from Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s president), Chinese diplomats have sought to capitalize upon the downward economic spiral across the world in highlighting the pragmatic reasons European states should not decouple from China. More broadly, Beijing has apparently doubled down on attacking the Trump administration’s responses to the Black Lives Matter protests and civil unrest in the United States – such criticisms are not levied only for domestic or American consumption, but also in winning back the hearts and minds of the values-driven European political community. Whether or not such efforts in fact succeed in establishing China as a convincing alternative to the United States remains largely unseen – though the initial prognosis does not bode well for the country.
China’s Shape-Shifting Wolf Warrior Diplomacy
What of the much-chastised wolf warrior diplomacy? Many who are more sympathetic to China’s geopolitical quandary would note that the country’s combative diplomats have been left with little choice in light of staunch, Manichean assailing on the regime itself. As critics of the regime have shifted from attacking individual foreign policy or particular economic decisions to more essentialist and structural critiques of China’s political dogma, the country’s diplomats see themselves as waging a defensive war that is much reminiscent of the Boxer Rebellion in the late 19th century.
Such thoughts underpin the recent “shapeshifts” in the country’s wolf warrior diplomacy. Not only are the diplomats now bent on demonstrating China’s projected strength and nationalistic solidarity, but they are also invoking emphatic discourses to paint the country as a resilient fighter, a David in a struggle against the imperialistic Goliath. The Boxer Protocol was invoked by the editor-in-chief of the Global Times, Hu Xijin, as evidence of the United States’ “imperialistic proclivities” – in April, the prominent pundit declared that “what America is genuinely interested in is the continued weakening of China, through suppressing the country’s strategic competitiveness. It would not cease with its ambitious maneuvering, until our country collapses.”
The wolf warrior archetype is multilayered and complex. Unlike the stereotypical, anti-intellectual brawler who wins by brute force or the soft-spoken, erudite gentleman, the wolf warrior is construed to be at once defiant and resolute, while also standing for principles and values that extend beyond his self-interest. Through conjoining the country’s defensive rhetoric against what it perceives to be imperialistic advances, Beijing hopes to reframe its diplomatic strategy through the lenses and framework of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism which, coincidentally or not, largely cohere with the zeitgeist of our times. The anti-colonialist framing also lends China credibility and moral capital in consolidating its popular appeal among the peoples of African and Latin American states.
Understanding the Pivot
There are several potential explanations for this pivot. The obvious requires no elaboration: Beijing is fully cognizant that a monolithically belligerent approach to diplomacy would only alienate its critical economic allies in Europe, as well as provide ammunition to China hawks in the United States. Beijing is driven to mollify anti-Chinese sentiments among moderates across the Pacific. Failing that, securing Europe’s neutrality in the impending Cold War – where an alliance is impossible – would be instrumental in diffusing the escalating “encirclement” campaign against the country.
Yet the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs isn’t a homogenous bloc. Diplomats, too, disagree over the optimal strategy to take. More moderate diplomats (typified by China’s U.S. Ambassador Cui Tiankai) are likely to find the unrestrained aggression neither instrumentally useful nor contextually justified in aiding China in re-kindling its relations with core partners abroad, not only in Europe, but also in the rest of Asia, Latin America, Oceania, and North America. The party leadership is not oblivious to the concerns and recommendations of these diplomats, and has hence recalibrated throughout the summer in order to pacify critics abroad. The networks of informal international advisers and formal academic counselors to the State Council are likely to have played a preeminent role in steering the country’s diplomats away from what they perceive, perhaps correctly, as diplomatic Armageddon for the country.
Furthermore, as I have previously argued, wolf warrior diplomacy – most ascendant between April and June – was enacted largely with China’s domestic population in mind. The hyper-nationalistic rhetoric was espoused in order to maintain a high level of public buy-in, as well as to project regime strength amid the adversities confronting the country in the first half of the year. Diplomats’ gestures, speeches, and actions were extensively broadcasted across the country, which served to convince cynics and critics of the government’s backbone and reassure the public that the economic and political downturn had only transient effects. Now that Beijing has successfully mollified the mass disillusionment within the country, the party leadership has gained the room to pivot toward a more nuanced and well-hedged diplomatic strategy, so as to ensure that its economic recovery plans are not thwarted by animosity from abroad.
None of this is to say that everything that has occurred this year was within the regime’s control or foresight. Yet to dismiss wolf warrior and mask diplomacy, as well as Wang’s recent Europe visit, as unmitigated failures risk conflating hopes with reality.
As the November elections loom closer in the United States, and as European states confront a second wave of resurgence in COVID-19 accompanying their gradual opening up, China’s two-pronged diplomacy would inevitably be met with grave challenges. Whether or not the country could regain the trust of its prospective and past allies turns heavily on not only the domestic politics within European states, but also on whether hard-line hawks in Beijing, Brussels, and Washington alike can come to the realization that an all-out war between China and the West is not, and could never be, the answer.