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Why Chinese Foreign Policy Has Gone Full Wolf Warrior

Mark Episkopos

Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, China, Taiwan, Russia

Xi's uncompromising approach to foreign politics has flowed from the party leadership down to China’s diplomatic corps.

Here's What You Need to Remember:  This style, called “wolf warrior diplomacy,” came into its own as part of China’s public messaging efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic and was on full display at the March Anchorage Summit between top U.S. and Chinese officials.

Firmly in control at home, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seeks to project China’s growing influence abroad.

China’s ruling Communist Party kicked off a month of celebrations to memorialize its founding one hundred years ago. Infantry parade columns lined Tiananmen Square, while a helicopter fly-past carried the CCP flag and other party banners over Beijing. The CCP Centenary’s central message boils down to the title of one of the country’s most popular propaganda songs: “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China.”

In keeping with the event’s overarching theme, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping opened his prepared remarks with an act of profuse self-congratulation: “It is my honor to declare on behalf of the Party and the people that through the continued efforts of the whole Party and the entire nation, we have realized the first centenary goal of building a moderately prosperous society in all respects,” he said. Sarah Cook, Research Director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House, told Axios that Xi’s speech was remarkable for its consistent conflation of the Chinese people with the Chinese Communist Party: “China’s success hinges on the Party… without the Communist Party of China, there would be no new China and no national rejuvenation.”

The CCP, added Xi, delivered the Chinese people from a century of exploitation by the Western imperialist powers and “showed the world that the Chinese people had stood up, and that the time in which the Chinese nation could be bullied and abused by others was gone forever.” The speech was partly intended as a rebuke of ongoing efforts by his foreign and domestic detractors to draw a sharp conceptual divide between China’s general population and its ruling class. “The Party was chosen by history and the people,” he said. “The leadership of the Party is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics and constitutes the greatest strength of this system. It is the foundation and lifeblood of the Party and the country, and the crux upon which the interests and wellbeing of all Chinese people depend.”

Xi reminded Beijing’s adversaries in no uncertain terms that China has the means and the will to stand up for itself on the international stage. “We have never bullied, oppressed, or subjugated the people of any other country, and we never will. By the same token, we will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us.” The next part was officially translated by Chinese state media as follows: “Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.” But the proper translation, provided by the China Media Project, is rather more visceral: "Anyone who tries to do so will find their head broken and blood flowing against a great wall of steel built with the flesh and blood of more than 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

In keeping with his government’s increasing impatience in “resolving the Taiwan question,” Xi urged the Party to “take resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward Taiwan independence.” This approach, pithily summarized by defense ministry spokesman spokesman Wu Qian’s insistence that “Taiwan independence means war,”  highlights a stark tonal and policy shift away from the gentler, soft power-driven reunification strategy previously outlined by Deng Xiaoping.

This uncompromising approach to foreign politics has flowed from the party leadership down to China’s diplomatic corps, which has not shied away from consistently combative rhetoric in its dealings with the outside world. This style, called “wolf warrior diplomacy,” came into its own as part of China’s public messaging efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic and was on full display at the March Anchorage Summit between top U.S. and Chinese officials. In a seeming recognition that relentless, almost theatrical confrontation is hardly a foundation for sound diplomacy, Xi appealed to the country’s “wolf warriors” in early June to bring it down a notch: China’s diplomats and propagandists must “pay attention to control the tone, be open and confident as well as modest and humble, and strive to build a credible, lovable, and respectable image of China,” he said. But Xi’s centenary speech, rife as it is with the open-ended grievances and pugilistic proclamations that have characterized Chinese diplomatic practice in recent years, shows a CCP General Secretary reluctant to take his own advice.

Whereas China’s adversaries and competitors from New Delhi to Washington would be inclined to view these developments with apprehension, some others welcome Beijing’s increasing assertiveness. “America is concerned with China’s growth. But who could be concerned with China’s growth? Only those who aspire to global hegemony. Is Russia concerned with China’s growth, and will it be concerned? No,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in a recent appearance on Russian television. “On the contrary,” Peskov added, “Russia sees additional opportunities for [our] bilateral relations in China’s growth and the fact that it is growing as fast as it is. We want our partner, this great partner, to be stable, prosperous, rapidly developing, and friendly with us.”

Sino-Russian relations have reached a historic high point under the joint stewardship of Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the two powers signing a treaty on “Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation” on the eve of the centenary. Earlier, Moscow and Beijing signaled a united front against “unilateral” Western sanctions. The long-term implications for the U.S.-Russia-China strategic triangle are stark: as previously explained by The National Interest, Russia and China need not strike a formal military alliance to pin Washington into what could become a losing two-front conflict. Almost half a year into his term, it falls on President Joe Biden to articulate a grand strategy to tackle what has become one of Washington’s most pressing geopolitical challenges: growing Chinese assertiveness, underwritten by placatory policies from Moscow.

Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the national interest. 

This article is being republished due to reader interest.

Image: Reuters









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