Over the last two years, the U.S-China conflict has stepped into uncharted territory, plumbing depths unseen since normalization in 1979. Unfortunately, fueled by misinformation during the global spread of the COVID-19, the two sides continue to be drifting apart. One of the most ingrained and convincing narratives in the United States is China’s alleged “wolf warrior” diplomacy, which appears to be far more infectious than the viral outbreak recently. The term, stemming from a successful Chinese patriotic action blockbuster titled “Wolf Warrior” (Zhan Lang), has now become a buzzword to criticize the recklessly confrontational style of diplomats in China.
Despite the gradually developed consensus within Western states that China is intensifying its efforts – moving from a low profile to assertiveness on the international stage – we should think twice about the validity of this claim in face of the prevalence of “wolf warrior” diplomacy rhetoric.
For starters, let’s grasp the origin and motivation behind this popular depiction. Encouraged by China Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian’s Twitter postings on the origin of coronavirus, an array of articles posted on the website of China’s Embassy in France, for example, set out to compare Beijing’s success in containing the epidemic and the incapacity of Western states’ reactions. As the disparity in efficiency against COVID-19 becomes evident, China has not been given sufficient credit for its successful containment – in fact, it has at times been stigmatized. Chinese officials issuing hawkish and painfully frank statements is thus not uncommon. In turn, they soon provoked an international backlash from other countries struggling to contain the pandemic, represented by the United States, and their approach has been characterized as wolf warrior diplomacy. This label eventually managed to construct a more assertive national image of China, quickly expanding collective fear, aversion, and criticism in the eyes of other beholders.
Substantially, behind the hardline moves of the U.S.-led alliance are serious concerns around a possible systemic adjustment of China’s strategy as reflected in its diplomatic pattern. After President Xi Jinping came to power, China, a superpower-in-the-making, has actively engaged in international affairs. By adapting its pre-existing foreign strategy of taoguang yanghui (keep a low profile and bide your time), Beijing now seeks to explore a new path toward being a “constructor of global peace, a contributor to development of global governance, and a protector of international order.” And it is this growing power, especially in the economic domain, that makes China so outspoken, with a more intransigent posture in various affairs.
For the United States, although a strategic retreat is underway guided by President Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine, China’s global ambition with an inclination toward an unbalanced multipolarity is intolerable. In Washington’s view, the long-standing world order under Pax Americana cannot be eroded, at least not by a regime ruled by a Communist Party.
Despite some pugnacious signals, we believe that China’s current behaviors differ from what has been described as wolf warrior diplomacy for two reasons. First, an exclusive concentration on the events during the outbreak is insufficient. Instead, they need to be put in the context of overall U.S.-China tensions for examination. The global spread of the epidemic, specifically, functioned as the catalyst, accelerating the stigmatization of China’s national image in the United States. American hawkish politicians spread misinformation and distorted facts. Even today, Trump administration adviser Peter Navarro still calls the coronavirus the “China virus” on social media, although the World Health Organization and relevant authoritative institutions have made multiple clarifications. In essence, China’s diplomatic action is a counter-attack in a specific situation, an active response against the high pressure from the White House, and will not become the norm over the long run. Moreover, the tough diplomatic line is simultaneously in service of domestic public opinion, with the consideration of restraining and guiding nationalism in particular. If the government was perceived to be backing down when national interests are at stake, it might upset politically active citizens and thereby shoulder more audience costs, since citizens care about the international reputation of the country and its leaders. But taken as a whole, from “mask diplomacy” to economic aid, China still attempts to hold rationality and restraint as its main tone in an effort to cast itself as a responsible global power.
Second, tweeting by career diplomats (represented by Zhao Lijian) is a personal political act that does not reflect a departure in China’s official foreign policy pattern. In the face of the U.S. attack against China, Zhao has every right to defend his political institution and country, regardless of the poor effects. What is structurally divergent between the two countries is that the discourse of the United States in the international arena is more diverse. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s public statements on Twitter are often criticized by U.S. mainstream media and the Democrats, thus making it clear they are not universal shared. On the contrary, China’s voice overseas remains relatively muted; most officials themselves are cautious about what they say because of government rules and discipline. Accordingly, the country’s position is judged narrowly based on merely one or two channels. It is easy to take the statements of individual diplomats or spokespeople as a whole, misperceiving them as the unitary official attitudes from the leadership.
Putting aside the debate about right or wrong, the reality is that such iron-fisted responses have always been the mirror of political stances, reflecting the current U.S.-China conflict. The feud between great powers does nothing helpful in terms of problem-solving but only escalates the quagmire. How to collaborate on a vaccine to contain the epidemic is the most urgent task facing all countries. After all, not too many buffer zones are left for China and the United States.
Chen Dingding is the founder and president of Intellisia Institute, an independent think tank in China that focuses China and the world. Hu Junyang is an assistant research fellow at Intellisia Institute, with a research focus on domestic politics, media, public opinion and Chinese foreign policy.