China’s assertive new diplomatic approach in the Xi Jinping era has come to be dubbed “wolf warrior diplomacy”, marked by a muscular posture in pursuing China’s interests. Peter Martin, author of the new book China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy and previously a foreign correspondent in China, tells The Hindu in an interview the approach is not exactly new and is rooted in the Communist Party’s history. The current state of relations with India, he says, is “the best example” of how it has often backfired although, he argues, wolf warrior diplomacy is likely here to stay. Excerpts from an interview:
Where does the idea of ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy come from?
There was this blockbuster movie that came out in 2017 about this Chinese action hero fighting foreign bad guys on the continent of Africa and avenging China’s enemies. It was this unexpected commercial success, the highest grossing movie ever at the Chinese box office. It came to symbolise this new mood in Beijing, where China was going to stand up for its interests, and was confident on the world stage.
Do Chinese diplomats approve of the term?
I would say on the whole, Chinese diplomats and officials, as far as I can tell, don’t like the term very much. From their view, they’re just kind of standing up for China’s interests, and they see this wolf warrior label as a form of name calling. I think, though, that quite a lot of Chinese citizens like the label. They like the idea that now China’s time has come, and our government is standing up for us. Perhaps in the past, they thought [China’s diplomacy] was bit too weak, and now they think that that that level of assertiveness is appropriate.
How much of this new approach is down to Xi Jinping, and how much is shaped by broader trends?
I think of Xi Jinping as both a cause and a consequence of changes that have taken place in China. The new assertive turn in Chinese diplomacy really started in 2008-09 in the wake of the global financial crisis. China had just hosted the Olympics. The West’s response to the financial crisis was sluggish and China’s was very, very decisive. In the ensuing years, China watched Western political systems deal with gridlock at home while its own economic growth continued. There are these trends taking place in China that are quite independent of Xi Jinping. But I think what Xi did was take a more confident and assertive tone, and accelerate it and make it more decisive and more permanent.
At the time of Xi taking over, there was a debate on whether China should continue with the Deng Xiaoping era approach of “hiding brightness, biding time”. Has that debate been resolved now?
I think the debate is still ongoing beneath the surface, although, in public, Xi Jinping, and those who want to continue this very brash, assertive tone, have certainly won out. There are large parts of China’s scholarly community on foreign affairs, and in fact some people in the Foreign Ministry, who would still like China to take a quieter, more humble approach to foreign policy. I don’t know that those people necessarily think that returning to the policy of the 1990s is realistic. There’s a refrain I heard quite a lot in Beijing that you can’t hide an elephant. The idea is China has gotten too big to really take that kind of low profile that it had in the past. But I think there are a lot of people who are very uncomfortable with this trend of picking apparently unnecessary fights and insulting foreign counterparts.
You argue there were signs of this approach even in the early years of the PRC, when the diplomatic corps in China was actually modelled on the PLA, thought of as a “civilian army”.
I see China’s diplomatic culture as a response to quite a unique challenge that China faced in 1949. This new Communist state basically had no diplomats. It had kicked out all of the KMT Nationalist diplomats who had stayed behind. It had a small band of officials who had been with China’s first foreign minister, Zhou Enlai, for a couple of decades. But apart from that, its diplomatic corps was made up of group of ragtag peasant revolutionaries and fresh university graduates. And it had this huge need to go out and communicate with the world. China didn’t have any friends or allies outside of the Soviet bloc. But it also was very fearful about regime survival, and very, very paranoid about foreign influence, and the potential for its newfound rule over China to be undone. Zhou Enlai, the first Foreign Minister and kind of the founding father of Chinese diplomacy, came up with this approach where he said, ‘Well, okay, we don’t know how to be diplomats, but we know how to fight battles. And so why don’t you model yourself on the People’s Liberation Army?’ So he said be like the People’s Liberation Army in civilian clothing. And what that means is unfailing loyalty to the Communist Party, strict adherence to discipline, an ability to display a fighting spirit when necessary. So this kind of militaristic culture grew up around Chinese diplomats really in a response to that need to both communicate with the world but also to be incredibly cautious about how they dealt with it.
How are domestic changes in China shaping its current diplomacy?
In Chinese diplomacy, domestic politics is always king. There’s been this pattern over the decades, when China wants to take the considerable discipline and expertise of its diplomatic corps and charm the world, and that’s the direction that the leadership sets, it can be very, very effective in doing so. But when Chinese politics kind of turns in on itself, starts embracing purges and ideological study sessions, cult of personality around leaders, those periods in history tend to produce a very combative style of diplomacy that alienates a lot of people outside of China. We look on with bewilderment sometimes and think, why are they possibly doing this because these are the people who are charged with improving China’s reputation? In truth, we’re not the audience. They’re doing this to signal to people in Beijing that they are loyal to the regime, they’re loyal to Mao or Xi Jinping or whoever is in charge. Foreign audiences are really a kind of byproduct there.
How successful has this approach been on the whole?
I think the current tactics are really quite effective when it comes to connecting with certain groups of political elites and across the world. I think of Viktor Orban’s Hungary, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to some extent Duterte in the Philippines. There are elites who kind of chafe under U.S. leadership and wish that the United States and its friends and partners would keep their opinions to themselves. I think wolf warrior tactics are quite effective at communicating with them. But in the grand scheme of things, I find it really hard to come up with any kind of net positive assessment of it. It’s one of the factors which has contributed to this incredible decline in global perceptions of China in Pew polling that you’ll have seen recently. Even before Biden came back, the EU was getting tougher on China, Britain was getting tougher on China, the Quad was becoming a more meaningful grouping in the Pacific, the Five Eyes intelligence Alliance, NATO, were all starting to take a more cohesive approach toward PRC foreign policy. I think wolf warrior diplomacy has contributed to that. In my mind, India is perhaps the best example of where this approach has kind of backfired. Wolf warrior tactics, combined with, of course, great military assertiveness on the China India border, has ended up pushing India much closer to the United States, and alienating a billion plus-person economy, an emerging power on the global stage with good relations with the United States, and that shares a border with China. To me, there’s no better example of that kind of counterproductive approach than what’s going on there.
Xi Jinping recently spoke of making China’s image more likeable. What does that mean for wolf warrior diplomacy going forward?
It’s hard to see it disappearing in the short to medium term. Xi Jinping did give this set of remarks recently at a Politburo study session where he talked about China needing to put forward a more lovable image in the world. There have been these incredible periods where China has charmed outside opinion and really improved its image using diplomacy as a tool. But Xi followed those remarks up with kind of a blood curdling speech for the Communist Party’s 100th anniversary celebrations. And it hasn’t really been combined with any softening of policy, from China’s use of re-education camps in Xinjiang to the clampdown in Hong Kong. Without some shift in those underlying policies which are upsetting elites in the West, and some alteration of the way that China presents itself in the world, and the expectations it sets for deference and respect from others, I find it quite difficult to imagine how Chinese diplomats could take a softer approach.