China Power

In Xi’s ‘New Era,’ China’s Foreign Policy Centers on ‘Struggle’

Recent Features

China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

In Xi’s ‘New Era,’ China’s Foreign Policy Centers on ‘Struggle’

Chinese officials hate the term “wolf warrior diplomacy,” but it’s clear that the phenomenon, by whatever name, is here to stay.

In Xi’s ‘New Era,’ China’s Foreign Policy Centers on ‘Struggle’
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, had his first annual press conference on Tuesday on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People’s Congress. His first lengthy interaction with the press (albeit under the carefully controlled conditions of Chinese official press briefings) served as a useful corrective to the previous theory that Qin would somehow use a lighter touch as China’s foreign minister.

Qin was even asked directly about perceptions that his appointment meant China would be “taking a softer approach with its diplomacy.” In response he quoted a Confucian saying: “One should repay kindness with kindness, and resentment with justice.”

“In China’s diplomacy, there is no shortage of goodwill and kindness. But if faced with jackals or wolves, Chinese diplomats would have no choice but to confront them head-on and protect our motherland,” Qin declared. That wasn’t far from the even coarser formulation once offered by China’s ambassador to Sweden: “We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we’ve got shotguns.”

While Qin rejects the premise of “wolf warrior diplomacy” as a “narrative trap,” it’s clear that the underlying ethos in here to stay. China will continue to pursue an unapologetically aggressive diplomatic approach in response to what it sees as exceptionally difficult international challenges.

“The new journey of China’s diplomacy will be an expedition with glories and dreams, and it will also be a long voyage through stormy seas,” as Qin put it. “The harder the mission, the more glorious its accomplishment.”

The general tone matches with the new official emphasis on “dare to struggle” (敢于斗争, translated by Xinhua as “have the courage to fight”). This is China’s preferred branding for what overseas observers has derisively dubbed “wolf warrior diplomacy.” It seems to be a new catchphrase, symbolically replacing the long-standing “hide your capabilities and bide your time” dictum from Deng Xiaoping. In fact, “dare to struggle” held the place of honor at the end of a much longer foreign policy mantra offered by Xi at a recent industry meeting; Deng’s “hide your capabilities and bide your time” had a similar origin.

“In the future, the risks and challenges we face will only become more numerous and more severe,” Xi warned in a section of the speech discussing both external and internal challenges. He urged national unity, where all the people devote their minds and energies to a shared goal. Only when the people “dare to struggle and are good at struggle can we endlessly seize new and greater victories,” he proclaimed.

This same mantra – “dare to struggle and be good at struggle” (敢于斗争、善于斗争) – made an appearance in Xi’s work report to the 20th Party Congress, suggesting its official status as a guiding principle for foreign policy in the “New Era.” A write-up from People’s Daily after the congress described the concept of “dare to struggle” as “embodying fearlessness,” adding, “in the face of major risks and powerful opponents, always wanting to pass one’s days in peace, and not wanting to struggle, is unrealistic.”

Interestingly, the phrase is used to refer to both domestic and foreign challenges. In fact, it originated in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, first appearing in a speech Xi gave at a ceremony celebrating the national anti-pandemic fight in September 2020. The basic principle is the same, whether the “struggle” is focused externally or internally: The Chinese people must unite as one and not be afraid to fight – in fact, they should take pride in becoming adept at fighting.

“Struggle is an art form, and we must be good at it,” Xi proclaimed. Practice makes perfect.

Much of this struggle, of course, will be aimed at the United States. To the extent that Beijing sees itself facing a hostile external environment, it lays the blame for those difficulties squarely on Washington. Qin said in his press conference that the U.S. “means to contain and suppress China in all respects and get the two countries locked in a zero-sum game.” He warned of “catastrophic consequences” if “the United States does not hit the brake but continues to speed down the wrong path.”

Qin also dismissed the Biden administration’s calls to “establish guardrails” to help manage China-U.S. competition, which Beijing clearly sees a disingenuous in the midst of Washington’s other policy moves (ranging from sanctions explicitly targeting China’s tech industry to a bolstered defense presence in China’s near abroad). The Biden administration’s version of “‘establishing guardrails’ for China-U.S. relations and ‘not seeking conflict’ actually means that China should not respond in words or action when slandered or attacked,” Qin fumed. “That is just impossible!”

Deng’s mantra of “hide and bide” has long since been shelved in favor of Xi’s exhortation to “strive for achievements.” Now that has been upgraded to the still more urgent “dare to struggle” amid what Beijing sees as a mounting threat to its continued development. China’s leaders have dropped the concept that the country is in a “period of important strategic opportunity for development.” Instead, as recent remarks from the Two Sessions make clear, Xi and his deputies see China as caught up in an existential, and increasingly dire, fight amid “profound and complex changes in both the domestic and international landscape.”

Anyone expecting a shift in China’s diplomatic tone should take note.