China’s “wolf warrior” era

Xi Jinping’s worldview carries with it an inherent contradiction — that of a world that is simultaneously China’s to lead and one that is apparently full of external threats. This paradox, more than any other factor, has shaped China’s diplomacy in the past decade

Updated - October 13, 2022 10:52 am IST

Published - October 12, 2022 11:16 pm IST

The Rocket Force under the Eastern Theatre Command of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducts conventional missile tests into the waters off the eastern coast of Taiwan, from an undisclosed location in this handout released on August 4.

The Rocket Force under the Eastern Theatre Command of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducts conventional missile tests into the waters off the eastern coast of Taiwan, from an undisclosed location in this handout released on August 4. | Photo Credit: VIA REUTERS

“Defend every inch of our land!”, reads a sign in Beijing’s Military Museum, which, to mark the Chinese military’s 95th anniversary, opened a sprawling exhibit earlier this year. Divided into four sections, the exhibition went deep into the past of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), unique among militaries in serving not a state but a single political party. The largest sections were devoted to the contributions of Mao in building a revolutionary army, and to the current leader, Xi Jinping, for building a “strong country” (“qiang guo”).

The corner of the exhibition where the sign has been displayed showcases stones from the Karakoram mountains along the India-China border as well as images from the June 2020 Galwan Valley clash, declaring that the Chinese military will do everything “to protect sovereignty”.

To the centre of the world

As Mr. Xi completes a decade in office and begins an unprecedented third term at the Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress which begins on October 16, “qiang guo” has become the short but sharp phrase of choice that sums up his view of China’s place in the world. Past maxims of China’s “peaceful rise” and “biding time, hiding brightness” have been given a quiet burial. The thrust of Mr. Xi’s argument is that China’s time has come. At the party’s previous congress in 2017, he declared China was “moving to the centre stage of the world”. His other favourite maxim is to declare that “the West was declining and the East was rising” in what he has repeatedly called a world witnessing “changes unseen in a century”.

At this turning point, Mr. Xi has emphasised not only opportunities for China — taking the “centre stage” — but peril that lurks in every corner in a global order, that he has often described as being in turmoil, even chaos. Mr. Xi presents the Communist Party under his leadership as China’s defence against this “chaos” and as leading what he calls the country’s “great rejuvenation”. This inherent contradiction in Mr. Xi’s worldview — of a world that is simultaneously China’s to lead and one that is apparently full of external threats — has arguably, more than any other factor, shaped China’s diplomacy in the past decade. China’s foreign policy appears to be caught between, on the one hand, presenting itself as the saviour of the UN-centred world order and globalisation — building, as Mr. Xi has christened, “a community of shared destiny” — and on the other, pursuing China’s core interests ever more aggressively, dubbed the ‘wolf warrior’ approach after a Chinese action hero, regardless of the consequences, from the mountains of Ladakh and the South China Sea to most recently, the waters around Taiwan.

The inevitable rise

The launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 was Mr. Xi’s signature foreign policy initiative and a platform to stake China’s claim to global leadership. According to the estimates of the Green Finance and Development Centre at Shanghai’s Fudan University, over the past decade, the total value of projects and investments through the BRI stands at over $930 billion. But more than the infrastructure projects and investments in connectivity, the biggest success of the BRI — which ten years later remains an amorphous and hard-to-define initiative, more an idea than an actual project — has been in furthering a narrative of the inevitability of China’s rise.

The BRI, much like China’s global ambitions, stands at an inflection point. Beijing today is facing criticism for rising debt levels in many partner countries and for unsustainability in some of its projects. Criticism aside, the fact that indebted partners have only returned to Beijing for more assistance underlines the reality of China’s economic muscle, as well as an apparent push to evolve the BRI away from a hard-infrastructure focus to a wider array of financial assistance. Consider Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which have received more than $26 billion from China in the past five years, and dealing with financial crises, are turning not only to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) but again, to Beijing.

Great power rivalry

Beyond the BRI, rising China-U.S. rivalry and deepening China-Russia ties have been perhaps the clearest markers of the direction of China’s foreign policy in the Xi era. As relations with Washington torpedoed during the Donald Trump administration, Beijing has increasingly sought to present itself as the defender of a world order that in its view the U.S. was seeking to wreck. Mr. Xi, in recent speeches, has repeatedly referred to a world facing two paths — one of disorder caused by “small cliques”, as China refers to the U.S. and its allies, and the other his “community of shared destiny”.

Worsening relations with the U.S. have been accompanied by warming ties with Russia, described by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently as being “the best in history”, as well as a declaration in February this year, on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which Beijing is yet to condemn, of a relationship with “no limits”.

Fixated on its problems with Washington, Beijing has sought to shore up relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours — it has, with its deep economic ties in the region, managed to blunt criticism over its militarisation of the South China Sea, which during the Xi era has come under greater Chinese control.

Yet Beijing’s renewed emphasis on protecting China’s “sovereignty” and core interests has rubbed up against its broader geopolitical ambitions, even undercutting them. India is a clear case in point, which Beijing’s mandarins have long viewed as a key “swing power”, but a country with which ties have deteriorated thanks to the PLA’s actions since April 2020.

Relationship with India

The see-sawing India-China relationship during the Xi decade, from the highs of two “informal summits” in Wuhan in 2018 and Mamallapuram in 2019, to the still on-going border crisis triggered by the Chinese military’s multiple transgressions that plunged relations to the lowest level since the normalisation of ties in the 1980s, have reflected the tensions in China’s diplomacy in the Xi period.

Under Mr. Xi, China has come to view territorial problems with neighbours not as “disputes” to be mutually resolved but as threats to China’s “sovereignty”, thus reducing the space for resolution. Relations with India have also been shaped increasingly by the all-consuming focus of Chinese diplomacy on its great rivalry with the U.S., which has become the lens through which Beijing has come to view relations with much of the world, including India. The coming five years under Mr. Xi are likely to bring an ever-sharper period of tensions with the West.

Beijing recently slammed the U.S. for its criticism over China’s military response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit. “They clearly believe they live in the time of 120 years ago,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, adding that “today’s China is not the old China of 100 years ago that was humiliated and bullied”. The ministry even compared the G7 group of developed nations to the eight-nation alliance that invaded China in 1900 and marked a “century of humiliation”, the memories of which Mr. Xi has promised to bury with his project of “rejuvenation”.

This is the last article of a three-part series examining China’s politics, economy and diplomacy in the Xi decade.

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