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Home > 2020 > Beijing’s Wolf Warriors Diplomacy | Rajaram Panda

Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 38, New Delhi, September 5, 2020

Beijing’s Wolf Warriors Diplomacy | Rajaram Panda

Friday 4 September 2020, by Rajaram Panda

Almost friendless, except Pakistan and North Korea, in the world, China’s brazen display of muscular power and intimidating behavior, adopting salami-slicing strategy to grab other nation’s territories, and utter disrespect to global rules has become a matter of concern to the world. Given the on-going and deteriorating tensions between the US and China, China is indulging in a diplomatic overdrive to sell its policies even though there are not many buyers. The latest narrative in this strategy is that Beijing has instructed its diplomats posted overseas to indulge vigorously to defend Beijing’s foreign policy strategy and justify all of its actions, ignoring that those are adversely impacting the world. The spread of misinformation about the rest of the world’s coronavirus response is the latest example.

Without any semblance of modesty and diplomatic niceties, Beijing put in task its embassies to adopt an aggressive tone, even though documents revealed that there was some deliberate critical delay in announcing the coronavirus outbreak, with a view to deny any wrong doing. At the same time it pursued a vigorous strategy to gain more influence at the World Health Organisation after a US announcement and even went ahead with blocking Taiwan’s participation as an observer at a crucial WHO meeting, overlooking the fact Taiwan’s tackling the pandemic was a success story and its knowledge in handling could have benefitted the world. A disgusted US President Donald Trump decided to pull out from this world body dealing with critical health issues. 

Beijing started discriminating against foreign students amid the pandemic even when its missions overseas continued in aggressive diplomatic offensive to defend policies crafted back home in Beijing. In particular, hundreds of African nationals, with majority from Nigeria, were expelled from their homes in Guangdong and were not allowed to dine at restaurants and shop at stores.

Any critical view of its policies from any foreign nationals and diplomats were received with retributions. Hiding its own mistakes, Beijing sculpted a counter narrative and started blaming other countries for the outbreak of the virus, provoking France, for example, to summon the Chinese ambassador in Paris debunking the charge that French nursing home workers were abandoning their charges. Beijing overlooked the fact that much of the Chinese medical equipment delivered to Europe during the pandemic were found to be defective or counterfeited.

Not to be undone, a post directed at a Sri Lanka critic using undiplomatic language led Sri Lanka temporarily to suspend Chinese embassy’s Twitter account, despite China’s involvement in the Hambantota port. Also, Kazakhstan which is keen to cultivate China summoned the Chinese ambassador to Nur-Sultan after a Chinese online platform Sohu published a piece claiming a part of Kazakh territory.

The reasons for the Chinese embassies’ overdrive to defend Beijing’s policies could be because of two reasons: either they are just following the orders from Beijing or in their over enthusiasm to boost their own diplomatic careers in order to please President Xi Jinping. Also online trolls against foreign nationals have seen a sudden spike. Even the Chinese ambassador in New Delhi is on an overdrive to defend Beijing’s policies by commenting frequently on recent border spat and on soft power — Confucian institute — issues. 

China’s brazen aggressive posture underpins its frictions with the US with a host of issues. Whether it is bilateral or regional, the US has calibrated its China policy in such a way that it is unwilling to yield space to an aspiring power if it undermines its own position. The Sino-US tensions are the bottom line that explains China’s recent external behavior that attempts to upset the established structure of governance. The question that demands answer is, has China graduated to be capable to replace or even share space with the US on the same platform as equals? The supplementary question to this: is there scope for mutual accommodation so that both can co-exist? The answers seem to be clearly NO.

Now, let us compare their credentials, their strengths, both military capability and economic weight, and see if both qualify to be equals or if they can co-exist with uneven positions. Though China has leapfrogged in strengthening its military capability, it is still no match to the US military might. To give just one simple example, while the US has twelve aircraft carriers, China has just two. This shows the huge gap between the two in terms of naval assets and therefore China should watch out of possible US intervention if it escalates tensions in the South China Sea or on Taiwan. While the US has entered into collective defence treaties with more than fifty countries, China has only one with North Korea. Though Trump’s thrust on ‘America First’ policy has brought some of the alliance relationships under strain that by no means considerably diminished the spirit of the relationships. The US most likely would comply with its treaty obligations and defend the alliance partners if they come under Chinese threat.

On the economic front, though China has achieved remarkable economic prosperity and emerged as the world’s second largest economy, the gap between the US and China remains still huge. Many are state-owned enterprises and controlled by the party. Inequality is rising. The economic rent is not evenly distributed among the people. The outbreak of the coronavirus has also slowed growth. Its one-child policy for some decades ago has led to a sudden spike in elderly population, putting strain now on the labour market. Pollution, soil erosion, water scarcity in several cities is blots on the society.

Notwithstanding these gaps, China is threatening to catch up with the US. Exactly two decades ago, US share of the global economy was 31 per cent while China accounted for four per cent. In 2020, while the US share has shrunk to 24 per cent, China’s has risen to 15 per cent. Projections are being made that unless the US undertake course correction and revives its economy, the US might lose its place to China as the single largest economy in the world. If that happens, it would be the first time in more than a century that the world’s largest economy belongs to a non-democratic country.

The world finds itself in a rather unfamiliar moment at a time when China’s pursuit of a larger role in the world coincides with America’s pursuit of a smaller one. This new found confidence has led China to go on an overdrive and diplomatic offensive to sell China to the world. China has enhanced its global presence by reactivating some of its policy options such as evacuating in 2015 civilians from fighting in Yemen, the first such act by the Chinese Navy in an international event. It is exporting Chinese values through a number of Confucian Institutes it has opened throughout the world under the guise of promoting soft power diplomacy. It remained unconcerned that some of such institutes have come under scanner in the operating countries as they suspect these as propaganda institutes as well as indulging in surveillance activities. Side by side, its expanding maritime footprint was manifested in its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017.

As a part of its economic engagement with the world with ulterior motives of economic imperialism, it has embarked on history’s most expensive foreign infrastructure plan. Known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it involves building roads, railways and port in Asia, Africa and beyond. The initiative entails a trillion dollars and could be more than seven times that of the Marshall Plan, launched by the US in 1947 wherein it spent $130 billion dollars in today’s value on rebuilding post-War Europe.

China’s “Sick man of Asia” syndrome

However, China’s aggressive posture both economically and diplomatically is underpinned by a sense of nationalism that revolves around victimhood. China just cannot forget the bitter legacy of invasion and imperialism and is allergic to be described as “the sick man of Asia”, which it saw as a racial slur. When the Wall Street Journal published an article on 3 February 2020 under the headline “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia” authored by Walter Russell Mead on the shaky financial foundations of China’s economy, China was enraged. Taking umbrage, it sought an immediate apology. With no apology forthcoming, China immediately ordered three journalists from the WSJ to leave the country within five days, the first time in decades that China expelled multiple reporters from the same outlet simultaneously.

In doing so, Beijing overlooked history and the context in which the word was used before. Even in the West, the phrase ‘sick man’ was used to describe a weak state. It was first coined to talk about the Ottoman Empire’s degeneration from its former glory and when it was in a state of decline. In the context of China, the term was coined for the first time in 1895 to describe Qing officials by Chinese scholar Yan Fu after China lost a war against the Japanese (1894-1895). When the Qing officials signed the humiliating Treaty of Shimonoseki ceding Taiwan to the Japanese, Yan was angry and used the phrase “sick man” against the officials who were party to the treaty. The term then used was to refer bad governance and way to describe the faltering Qing dynasty.  

Then in 1896, Shanghai-based newspaper North China Daily News ran a piece attacking poor governance of the Qing government, stating “there are four sick people of the world — Turkey, Persia, China, Morocco ... China is the Sick Man of the East”. The word “sick man” was first used by the Westerners aimed at Turkey as “sick man of Europe” that soon gained currency when applied to the Chinese as “sick man of East Asia”. Soon, Chinese started using the same word to describe the state of affairs of their own country. The phrase gained more currency when Chinese thinker and philosopher Liang Qichao was the first to use the term ‘sick man’ more literally in 1902. He was dismayed about the opium addiction of the people and advocated replacing the Qing imperial system with a constitutional monarchy.

Given this historical context, Beijing’s reaction to the WSJ article was unwarranted. While Beijing invokes claims over the South China Sea citing historical evidence, it becomes over sensitive on the use of a word by a newspaper that was used by its own people a century ago. Now, China encourages a new wave of nationalism and arouses passions of the people by distorting historical facts. It now interprets the 2017 film “Wolf Warriors II” as a self narrative by capturing China’s newfound identity. The objective is to boost national pride and a sense of patriotism among the Chinese people

Stemming from this narrative, wolf-warrior diplomacy links to the 2017 blockbuster engages Chinese diplomats to defend China’s national interests without being shy of choosing a confrontational manner. This aggressive style has now become the new normal. Such an approach has endorsement by the highest authority of the country, Xi Jinping, who has on several occasions stressed China’s “fighting spirits”. No wonder, Chinese diplomats have become more combative while addressing China’s national issues. It is the government’s endeavour to “tell the China story”. It is a different matter that not all Chinese diplomats posted overseas subscribe to Beijing’s prescriptions but they have little freedom to craft their independent strategy. This shows that there could be cracks in the wolf warrior style of diplomacy. 

In the ongoing diplomatic tussle, differences between China and the US have to be managed. Both need to focus on constructive means to address the issues derailing bilateral ties. Either side needs to make some compromises on political, ideological, and cultural differences so that differences are addressed. From China’s side, it should consider to welcome constructive criticism and evaluate issues on merit. How either side balances soft power with hard power while defending national interest would be the defining moment for peace and security in the Indo-Pacific. If China sticks to its stance on narrative of “century of humiliation” and perceives to correct this historical wrong, the future is heading towards an undefined terrain. The events of 19th and 20th centuries are no longer relevant in contemporary times. China is expected to be awakened to this reality.

Dr. Rajaram Panda was formerly Senior Fellow at the IDSA, New Delhi.

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