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China's 'wolf warrior' diplomacy is anything but effective

Each time they lash out aggressively or pick fights they do the hawks’ bidding, making it easier to stoke resistance and anti-Beijing sentiment.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Chinese foreign policy has become more assertive and heavy-handed in the last decade, and as a result it has alienated some of its neighbors and fueled greater wariness of Beijing’s intentions in the region. As China has become wealthier and more powerful, the Chinese government has shown greater willingness to throw its weight around even at the cost of antagonizing and insulting other governments. 

Among other things, that has taken the form of a more confrontational approach to diplomacy and public relations, which has been given the now-familiar nickname of Wolf Warrior diplomacy. This approach has been backfiring on the Chinese government. It has hamstrung China’s efforts to pursue its regional ambitions, and if it continues it should help remove the need for the U.S. to organize a coalition of states against China in the years to come. 

An aggressive and unilateral foreign policy always provokes hostility and resistance, and the U.S. would be well-advised not to get in Beijing’s way when they are making such a mistake. The U.S. must also refrain from adopting a similar self-defeating confrontational approach of its own. The last thing that the U.S. or East Asia needs is for Washington to try to outdo China in its combative rhetoric and diplomacy. 

The Chinese ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, recently defended his government’s combative diplomacy, and predictably cast it in terms of defending his country: 

“Westerners criticize us for being undiplomatic. We do not evaluate our work by how foreigners see us but whether the people in our nation are happy with our work. We will not stop what we are doing simply because foreigners don’t like what we do. In fact, it is them who are the real aggressors and not us. We never actively attack or provoke others. What we do is justified defense to safeguard our own interests.” 

Every government likes to portray itself as put-upon and acting in self-defense, and usually the more confrontational they are the more they will hide behind this rhetoric. The refusal to hear and understand outside criticism is usually an indication that a government has become trapped in its own information bubble and remains oblivious to the damage that it is doing to its reputation and international standing. Lu’s comments are more evidence of what Sulmaan Wasif Khan has described as the “belligerent, defensive nationalism that lashes out without heed of consequences” that has taken hold of Chinese foreign policy. 

Lu justified combative diplomacy as if this were something forced on China by others: “In this era, we put more emphasis on ‘achieve something’ because it is something we must do. The West has launched a public opinion war against us. How can we not fight back? China’s image would be tarnished as they desire if we do not strike back.”

 The chief flaw with this approach to diplomacy is that it will produce more of the harsh criticism that it is meant to counter. Like the “swagger” diplomacy of Mike Pompeo that it resembles, it weakens the position of the government that practices it. The more that Chinese diplomats denounce outside criticisms of their government’s policies and engage in provocative histrionics, the more that they feed hostility towards China and prompt new criticism. Each time that Chinese diplomats lash out at their host countries to protest some criticism, they are doing the China hawks’ work for them and making it easier for the hawks to stoke anti-China sentiment. 

Hawks in every government usually dismiss foreign criticism as inherently invalid, and nationalists delight in the contempt they inspire in other countries, but as we saw in the U.S. during Pompeo’s disastrous tenure at the State Department this makes for poor policymaking. During one of the worst periods of hawkish unilateralism here in the U.S., our government dismissed constructive criticism from allies and adversaries alike when it plunged ahead with the invasion of Iraq. The more international opprobrium a particular policy attracts, the more that hawks feel validated and the more self-destructive their policies tend to become. 

Hawkish arrogance tends to create a vicious cycle: hawks view foreign condemnation of their destructive policies as a challenge to national resolve and so they redouble their commitment to those policies even though there would be no outside criticism were it not for them. We see this in the Chinese government’s zealous defense of some of their most outrageous policies, especially the genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Chinese president Xi Jinping seems to have recognized the damage that has been done to China’s international standing in recent years, which prompted his call earlier this year to communicate more effectively and “to make friends.” Lu’s comments suggest that Xi’s message has either not been received or it has been interpreted very differently by at least some of China’s diplomats. Proponents of a confrontational approach to international relations are typically the last to admit that their approach harms the interests of their state, so it may simply be that Xi’s warning has fallen on deaf ears. If that is the case, it could be that the Chinese government will have a hard time reining in its combative diplomats even if the leadership recognizes the problem with them. 

Perhaps the biggest weakness of this combative diplomacy is that, as Khan observes, “there is no obvious point to it.” It amounts to picking fights for the sake of fighting, and as such it cannot achieve anything. It is strange that Lu defended this behavior in terms of “achieving something” when it is typically fruitless and counterproductive. One of the more common, false tropes about China is that the Chinese government supposedly thinks in terms of generations, decades, or centuries, but the emergence of this combative diplomacy in recent years shows that China’s foreign policy can be just as reactive and short-sighted as any other nation’s. 

The U.S. should be prepared to take advantage of Chinese diplomatic malpractice by dedicating more attention and resources to serious diplomatic engagement in Southeast Asia and East Asia. Our government should not seek to shoehorn every issue into an overarching rivalry with China, but rather it should cultivate closer ties with regional states to show that the U.S. values these relationships on their own terms. Regional governments have no desire to become front-line states in a new Cold War, but the U.S. can build more significant relationships with these countries if our government is willing to put in the work. For all of Biden’s talk of reviving American diplomacy, there are few signs so far that the U.S. has started doing that.

Competent and effective diplomacy is neither belligerent nor hypersensitive to criticism. The previous administration sabotaged U.S. diplomacy through haughtiness and disrespect for the interests of others, and our government should be careful not to repeat those mistakes in its dealings with China and the rest of East Asia. We should learn from both China’s diplomatic failings and our own. While China’s government is alienating other governments with its confrontational attitude, it is time for the U.S. to reinvigorate its diplomatic efforts and advance U.S. interests through peaceful engagement.

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Analysis | Asia-Pacific
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