China’s imposition of punitive sanctions on EU institutions and individuals over Xinjiang,
its attacks on the West’s colonial past when discussing human rights and the recent
outburst by Yang Jiechi during the dialogue in Anchorage have all re-ignited discussions
over Beijing’s assertive diplomacy. In fact, throughout the past year, there has been
much debate about the increasing abrasiveness of Chinese diplomats.
This phenomenon has popularly come to be described as Wolf Warrior diplomacy. While Yang’s long speech in Anchorage got much coverage, he was incredibly measured in comparison to Li Yang, China’s Consul General in Rio de Janeiro. A week ago, Li lashed out at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Twitter, accusing him of turning Canada into the “running dog of the US.”
Chinese officials tend to argue that their changed attitude is necessary to defend
“national honor and dignity” and “refute all groundless slander” targeting China. Or as
China’s outgoing ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, argued last year: “Where there is a ‘wolf’, there should be a ‘warrior’.
For analysts like David Badurski, however, this aggressive diplomacy is a product of the “rise of charismatic politics” and “the erosion of collective leadership in favor of a cult of personality around Xi Jinping.” Xi, for Bandurski, is the “alpha male, the leader of the pack, determined to inspire a fighting spirit in the Party’s ranks.” And this attitude percolates down to officials.
And then there are those like Jessica Chen Weiss who argue that Wolf Warrior diplomacy might appease nationalists at home but will hinder Beijing’s ambitions to “attract international
support and show global leadership.” In the same vein, Natasha Kassam, director of the
Lowy Institute, argues that China increasingly appears to be prioritising a show of
strength over global public opinion. “The logic in Xi Jinping’s China often prevents a
rethink of counterproductive policy,” she told Bloomberg recently.
There’s merit in each of these propositions. However, reading speeches by China’s
leaders, official statements and commentaries and analyses in Chinese media one tends
to get a sense that there is a deeper shift that’s driving Chinese diplomacy.