Wolf Warrior Diplomacy on Vacation, while Party expects Returns on Investment

Twitter can be fun, but would be a waste of time if all the information you can get passes by without some reflection on it. Learning by repetition. Here goes.

China’s recent diplomacy has been referred to as wolf warrior diplomacy (戰狼外交) in recent months – or in fact for years (as Sweden can tell) -, but it has become a much more frequently used term with the COVID-19 crisis.

As Washington and Beijing traded accusations and conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 origins during the first half of 2020, Beijing’s propaganda machine continuously switched gears between angry statements and more or less funny cartoons on “social media” platforms like Twitter, depicting Trump administration officials as dorks or hypocrites. Chinese foreign ministry (FMPRC) spokesman and communications director Zhao Lijian as well as Chinese media outlets like CCTV-English, People’s Daily in English, Xinhua news agency etc. took leading roles in “anti-American” (反美) enunciations.

But wolf warrior diplomacy apparently didn’t lead to results that would have satisfied Beijing after all. On Tuesday (August 4), China’s ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, told an NBC anchor and a wider online public that

The normalization of relations between our two countries and the growth of this relationship over the decades has served the interests of both countries and the world very well. It’s quite clear to all of us are still enjoying the positive outcome, the benefit of this growth of relationship. Nobody can really deny this.

Societal differences should provide opportunities for mutual learning, Cui suggested.

Cui himself didn’t have to make a u-turn to emphasize the “positive outcomes” of Sino-US relations – he had never been a wolf warrior diplomat anyway, and Washington wouldn’t have been the place to test these fruits of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era / Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy anyway. And when he made the essential swipe – there needs to be one in every Chinese representation to Americans these days, to show that the speaker is not afraid of his audience -, he smiled as if he wanted to apologize for what he was saying.

Click picture for video

His boss, foreign minister Wang Yi, didn’t have to turn everything upside down either. But to show that Xi has always been a great supporter of dialogue, he inaugurated a Research Center for the Guiding Role of Xi Jinping’s diplomatic Thought at the FMPRC on July 20.

According to “Radio Free Asia” (apparently not safely verified), fifty-centers have been told to switch their messages from “anti-American” to “double-win” (click picture for details)

Thusly illuminated, foreign minister Wang addressed an online forum of American and Chinese think tanks (including Henry Kissinger and Kevin Rudd, apparently) on July 9, Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas in a video conference on July 24 (not without informing his colleague in Berlin that the problems in Chinese-American relations are all created by America), and, most recently, the readers of Communist Party organ “People’s Daily”.

Chances are that US secretary of state Pompeo and his network have struck the right note in communication with Beijing during the past months, and distancing from China could become a bipartisan American policy. However, the Trump administration may not be able to take traditional allies as far along in their cause as they would like to.

Australian foreign minister Marise Payne told a press conference with US secretary of state Michael Pompeo that “we make our own decisions and we use our own language”, and that “the relationship with China is important and we have no intention of injuring it”.

Sydney Morning Herald correspondents wrote on August 1 that Joe Biden, the US Democrats’ presidential nominee, was

expected to be closer to what Australia is trying to do: transition to a multipolar region where Beijing is accommodated but counterbalanced by regional powers including Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam and the US.

At times, Trump and Pompeo’s approach seems to be an attempt to maintain the US as regional hegemon – something Canberra quietly gave up on a few years ago.

[Lowy Institute executive director] Fullilove says in some ways a Biden administration would be tougher on China and may make requests of Australia which are harder to refuse.

The correspondents also pointed out that both Japan and New Zealand, while basically following the US / Australia lines, had kept a rather low profile, thus protecting their trade interests with China.

Germany wasn’t exactly the first country either to throw a gauntlet at Beijing, or to publicly take note of China’s internment policies in East Turkestan, or its breach of international law by imposing its “national security law” on Hong Kong. Berlin’s position was further complicated as Germany’s leadership currently chairs the EU in a rotational arrangement, having to find as much common ground among Beijing-leaning EU member states and more resilient members.

Only when Hong Kong’s government announced a “postponement” of Legislative Council elections by a year, ostensibly because of the special administrative region’s COVID-19 crisis, Germany joined other countries and suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong. On August 3, French foreign ministry sharply criticized Beijing’s “national security law”, and halted ratification of its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, which had been in process since 2017.

A few days earlier, and five days after his conversation with Germany’s foreign minister, Wang Yi had been on the phone with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian,

Austrian public radio ORF‘s China correspondent Josef Dollinger arguably provided one of the more succinct summaries of European policies. Asked on July 29, the morning when the EU governments presented their agreed reaction to Beijing’s Hong Kong policy, if Washington’s chances of isolating Beijing could be successful, he said that conflicts with China could not be painless, and that while

you can ride a tiger gone wild without getting bucked off – difficult as that may be -, you shouldn’t keep shouting “I’ve got him, I’ve got him.”

Man kann zwar auf einem wild gewordenen Tiger reiten, ohne abgeworfen zu werden – auch wenn’s schwierig ist -, aber man sollte dabei nicht ständig rufen, “ich hab’ ihn, ich hab’ ihn”.

In the EU, disappointment about stalling talks on a comprehensive investment treaty with China have likely added to a hardening position.

And while America’s allies have resisted Pompeo’s calls to join them on the warpath, it does appear that China underestimated the impact of its Hong Kong policies, at least in democratic countries.

All the more, Wang Yi himself, too, tries to stick to a script that would paint China as the natural and predetermined victor to emerge from the beginning struggle. Among some double-win promises, he also threatened America with history’s pillar of shame (恥辱柱).

No matter how much, or little, pressure China may feel as a whole, Beijing’s diplomats are having a tough time of it. It is one thing to open a Xi-Jinping shrine at the FMPRC. To deliver on hard issues is another. The leadership and its personality core have significantly raised investment in diplomacy. They will expect more than just damage control in return.

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