Taming the wolf warrior — China’s rising aggression

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Signs of China’s growing assertiveness predated the pandemic. But it was in early 2020, as Covid-19 spread rapidly around the world, that Beijing went full “wolf warrior”.

Zhao Lijian, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, alleged on Twitter in March that the virus had originated in the US and suggested that Washington was engaged in a cover-up: “When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? . . . It might be the US military that brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”

On this rare occasion, Zhao — who has nearly 1m Twitter followers and legions of supporters inside China — was slapped down by his own superior. As outrage flared across America, Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the US, dismissed his remarks as “very harmful” speculation.

The episode, taken in a broader context, raises crucial questions. Why have China’s diplomats, long known for their poise and discipline, started shooting from the hip? What strategies is Beijing pursuing to undermine US power and the world order it leads? What does China’s foreign policy mean for countries on its borders, such as India?

The next decade is set to be crucial for a new era of superpower competition between the US and China that could result in both military escalation and a host of subtler changes to the way the world works. Three revealing books provide indispensable perspectives on the challenges that China’s rise is presenting to the wider world.

The term “wolf warrior”, in the subtitle of Peter Martin’s book China’s Civilian Army, comes from Chinese action movies that glory in taglines such as: “Whoever attacks China will be killed no matter how far the target is.” The films’ heroes are special forces in the People’s Liberation Army — called Wolf Warriors — who vanquish foreign mercenaries.

In the diplomatic arena, the term denotes officials who dispense with the usual niceties to harangue their foreign targets. Martin’s admirable book is full of examples that build into a genuinely puzzling question: what do China’s diplomats hope to gain from the threats and insults they dish out?

Consider a sprinkling of the evidence. In 2018, China’s delegate to the Pacific Islands Forum, a grouping of 13 small island states, refused to wait for his turn to speak, flew into a rage and then stormed out of the meeting. In Canada, China’s ambassador accused his hosts of “western egotism and white supremacy”, while in South Africa, China’s representative claimed that American policies were making the US “an enemy of the whole world”.

China’s ambassador to Sweden Gui Congyou speaks to the media in late 2019
China’s ambassador to Sweden Gui Congyou speaks to the media in late 2019 © TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Ima

In Sweden, ambassador Gui Congyou picked so many fights that he was called in to Stockholm’s foreign ministry more than 40 times in two years. In a memorable outburst, he likened Sweden to a 48kg boxer and China to an 86kg boxer. “The lightweight boxer doesn’t listen, he continues to provoke and forces himself into the heavyweight boxer’s home. What choice does this 86kg boxer have?” Gui is quoted as saying.

In Brazil, China’s ambassador called the family of President Jair Bolsonaro “poison” after his son blamed the “Chinese dictatorship” for the pandemic. Ambassador Cheng Jingye said the Chinese may refrain from consuming Australian beef and wine after Canberra called for an international inquiry into the origins of Covid.

The pandemic, without doubt, has sharpened China’s brand of undiplomatic diplomacy. But, Martin says, it does not explain it. Indeed, the phenomenon is likely to endure because it derives from the core narrative of the Chinese Communist party and an inherent distrust for the outside world.

Martin, a journalist formerly based in China, goes back to the CCP’s creation story to make this point. “Chinese envoys are unable to extricate themselves from the constraints of a secretive, paranoid political system,” Martin writes. “They will continue to be bound by institutions forged through underground revolutionary struggle and that matured at the height of the cold war.”

Of course, they also hope their outbursts will impress the boss, Xi Jinping. The Chinese leader’s harder edge in foreign affairs was foreshadowed in 2009 when on a trip to Mexico, as vice-president, he told an audience that “there are some foreigners who have eaten their fill, and have nothing better to do than point their fingers at our affairs”.

Since then, as president, Xi’s administration has taken aim in internal memos at “western constitutional democracy”, human rights, media independence, civic participation and other values that underpin western democracies. Thus, when Chinese diplomats adopt wolf warrior personas, they are embodying a CCP-sanctioned animus.

However, as Rush Doshi explains in The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order, there is a great deal more to Beijing’s ambitions. The wisdom of this book is that it dissects with piercing clarity the strategy of a country which wants to shape the 21st century in the same way as the US shaped the last one.

The competition for influence “will be a global one and Beijing believes with good reason that the next decade will likely determine the outcome”, writes Doshi, a former director at the Brookings think-tank in Washington.

He divides China’s approaches into three categories — blunting, building and expansion. The first — blunting — is being deployed by Beijing to undermine the control the US exercises around the world in terms of military power, political influence and economic leadership.

This strategy will be familiar to anyone who has followed China in the years since a trifecta of events — the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing in 1989; the Gulf war in 1991; and the collapse of the Soviet Union, also in 1991 — convinced Beijing to regard the US as its greatest strategic threat in the world.

The effectiveness of blunting derives from the fact that any relative gain that Beijing makes, no matter how incremental, can be seen as a victory. So when China launches its third aircraft carrier, it will in a relative sense be blunting an aspect of US military superiority — no matter that the US has 11 aircraft carriers in service.

Similarly, China’s construction of the world’s largest mine arsenal, the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile and the world’s largest submarine fleet all undermine US military power.

Political blunting involves China’s membership in a host of regional organisations — such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and Association of Southeast Asian Nations forums — that “might be used by Washington to build a liberal regional order . . . so China joined them to blunt American power”. Once part of such organisations, Beijing frustrated and hobbled US objectives within them. Economic blunting is similar.

The second strategy — building — was arrived at after determining that the 2008 financial crisis had left the US in a weakened state. Two examples would be China’s leadership of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a multilateral lender that counts more than 100 countries as members, and the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s plan to build infrastructure and win influence across the developing world.

The expansion strategy represents a more aspirational phase. Doshi says Beijing’s aim is to displace the US as the world’s leading state by 2049, 100 years after the CCP seized power. To achieve this, it is trying to gain leadership over international institutions and impose autocratic norms.

The book’s final chapter suggests a strategy for the US to counter China’s intricately planned long game. Doshi advocates much more nuance than was displayed by former president Donald Trump, who launched a trade war, called for economic decoupling and referred to Covid as “kung flu”.

Doshi argues, instead, “for an asymmetric competitive strategy, one that does not require matching China dollar-for-dollar, ship-for-ship, loan-for-loan”.

The third (and similarly titled) book, Vijay Gokhale’s The Long Game: How the Chinese Negotiate with India, looks specifically at an increasingly fractious relationship. A sudden clash along their disputed Himalayan border in 2020, which killed 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese ones, showed how incendiary bilateral ties can be.

Gokhale, a former Indian foreign secretary and ambassador in Beijing, uses his book to set forth a fascinating deconstruction of China’s negotiating techniques in high-stakes situations.

“In recent years, it seems that the dignified and gracious Chinese negotiator of yore may have been replaced by assertive wolf warriors,” Gokhale writes. “Of late, they tend to display aggression, arrogance, irritation and other disagreeable traits, but this is also theatre.” There is no interest in making friends for the sake of friendship. Relationships are established “with an eye on manipulation”, while any displays of anger are a “put-on”.

While Chinese diplomats may be masters of put-on personae, nobody doubts the reality that Beijing’s posture is growing more aggressive. As Doshi writes, it has opened internment camps in Xinjiang, violated its international commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy, fought Indian troops on the border, installed missiles on South China Sea islands, threatened economic punishment against Australia and several other states and kidnapped European citizens from third countries.

Its implacable opposition to the US-led world order is unmistakable. Last month, Xie Feng, deputy minister of foreign affairs, was quoted by official Chinese media as telling Wendy Sherman, US deputy secretary of state, that the “rules-based international order” is in fact an American version of the “law of the jungle”, which Washington used to bully others.

As the next decade of superpower competition plays out, it will suck many other countries into its vortex. Alarm bells are already ringing in capitals across the world as politicians debate which superpower to back or how to hedge their bets. The ever-present underlying fear is that if Pax Americana really does give way to an emergent Pax Sinica, the transition may not be from one world order to another. It may just constitute a slide into chaos.

China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy by Peter Martin, OUP $27.95/£21.99, 272 pages

The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order by Rush Doshi, OUP £21.99, 336 pages

The Long Game: How the Chinese Negotiate with India by Vijay Gokhale, Vintage Books 699 rupees/Penguin £26.99, 200 pages

James Kynge is the FT’s global China editor

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