More ‘Wolf Warrior’ Diplomacy, Please

World Politics Review, 24.03.2021
Judah Grunstein, editor en jefe

China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, center, and foreign minister, Wang Yi, second from left, speak at the opening session of U.S.-China talks in Anchorage, March 18, 2021. (Frederic J. Brown/AP Images).

If anyone was still holding out any hopes that the change of administrations in Washington would cool down tensions with China, last week’s first meeting between the Biden administration’s two top foreign policy officials and their Chinese counterparts should put them to rest. In a no-holds-barred exchange of remarks in front of reporters before the private discussions began, both sides lambasted each other with a litany of grievances, perceived slights and criticisms.

The Chinese delegation’s willingness to forcefully challenge the American side in such a public forum serves as further confirmation, if any were still needed, that the days when China would seek to hide its strength and bide its time are over. Beijing has clearly concluded that the United States is a global power in decline, and that the time is ripe for China to press its perceived advantages.

In reading the American press these days, it’s hard not to get the sense that many observers in the U.S. agree with that assessment. Of course, American declinism is an old pastime in the U.S., as close as the country gets to a national religion. But after four shambolic years of Donald Trump’s presidency and a year into America’s failed pandemic response, the current mood, as reflected in much of the commentary and analysis of the U.S.-China rivalry, seems to be one of resignation and shaken confidence.

Fortunately, a series of Chinese diplomatic missteps in Europe suggests that, in its competition with China, Washington can count on help from an unlikely source: Beijing.

Recall that as recently as late December, China had seemingly succeeded in driving a wedge between Europe and the incoming Biden administration, when it offered last-minute concessions to seal a languishing investment deal with the European Union. Led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, the EU pressed ahead with finalizing the deal even after Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security adviser, made it as clear as U.S. law permits that the Biden team was counting on coordinating positions with Europe on China.

The move reflected the EU’s different perspective on the challenge that China represents. As Nathalie Tocci, a special adviser to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, told me at the time in a Trend Lines podcast interview, “We don’t have an issue with our economic engagement with China strengthening China economically or perhaps even politically. That is not the way in which we approach the China question.” Still, Tocci added, “we want to make sure that our engagement with China, while it will not necessarily change China, does not change us either.”

Not three months later, China has now given the EU cause for reflection on that score twice in the space of a week.

First, the Chinese Embassy in Paris used schoolyard insults on its official Twitter feed to attack French analyst Antoine Bondaz for having defended the right of a French parliamentary delegation to meet with its Taiwanese counterparts on a trip to Taiwan. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian summoned the Chinese ambassador to express Paris’ displeasure with the latest example of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy.

Then, after the EU sanctioned Chinese government officials responsible for policy in Xinjiang province, where the Uyghur ethnic minority has been targeted with a repressive campaign that some have characterized as a genocide, Beijing responded by slapping sanctions on a prominent German think tank, the Mercator Institute for China Studies, as well as several European researchers critical of its human rights violations in Xinjiang.

Both moves are attempts to intimidate researchers and analysts from expressing themselves on topics China considers sensitive, and as such they represent an infringement on their right to work free from state coercion. Of course, the danger in Europe is not the risk of state censorship, but of individual and institutional self-censorship out of a fear of offending Beijing.

In our interview, Tocci alluded to such a danger. “We need to ensure that we have the safeguards in place, the protection mechanisms in place, to ensure that it’s not China’s norms, rules and values that filter into our own system and therefore threaten the premises and the practice of our liberal democracies,” she said.

If the red line, then, is interference with Europe’s liberal values, China just crossed it. And it is not an isolated incident, but rather part of a trend.

China has long used coercive trade practices to “punish” states for policies and practices it disapproves of. In recent years, however, the list of what qualifies for punishment began to move beyond official government positions on historical tripwire issues, like Tibet and Taiwan.

Now, it seems, Beijing has begun to target individuals exercising their free speech rights in democracies. In the case of Australia, for instance, China used trade reprisals to signal its displeasure with the government’s calls for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. But included on a publicly distributed list of 14 Chinese grievances was “an unfriendly or antagonistic report by media, poisoning the atmosphere of bilateral relations.”

At the time of Australia’s standoff with China, Sam Roggeveen wrote in WPR that Australia would have to “defend itself and its interests against China’s aggression … largely independently,” because its partners would always put their economic self-interest ahead of their sense of solidarity.

China certainly seems to be counting on this to be the case, for Australia, but also more broadly. But its recent moves in Europe demonstrate the ways in which, for all its strengths and advantages, Beijing is often its own worst enemy—in this case because it is confirming precisely everyone’s worst fears about the implications of a global order dominated by China.

It also demonstrates that for all of China’s vaunted long-term strategic vision, its diplomacy seems to be more and more calibrated to the immediacy of a social media feed—its wolf warrior diplomats more eager to dunk on critics on Twitter than to promote China’s image abroad.

That might have been a reasonable approach when the U.S. president was busy provoking outrages of his own on Twitter, alienating allies and adversaries alike. But the Biden administration’s disciplined conduct of diplomacy, which has so far treated Twitter as just another platform for broadcasting boilerplate communiqués, suggests Beijing’s wolf warrior ethos won’t age well.

Of course, the U.S.-China rivalry will not be won or lost on a Twitter feed. But China’s inability to rein in its worst instincts should be a cause for encouragement. Its most recent move has raised the hackles of Belgium, Denmark and Germany, which, like France, also summoned Beijing’s ambassadors to condemn the sanctioning of private individuals and institutions for exercising their free speech rights. And the European Parliament, which must ratify the EU-China investment deal that was finalized in December, has put any consideration of the agreement on ice until the Chinese sanctions are removed.

It should also serve as a cautionary tale for those in the U.S. who increasingly advocate for adopting pages from China’s playbook, like embracing industrial policy and trade protectionism, and closing off channels of academic and cultural exchange. Instead, the U.S. should redouble its commitment to repairing its liberal model, confident in its attractiveness, if not to all the governments of the world, then to most of the world’s people.

As Ali Wyne recently argued in a WPR briefing, Washington should not frame its foreign policy exclusively through the lens of competition with China. A much better approach is to focus on America’s many enduring strengths as a problem-solving nation, one with a vocation for collective effort and partnerships, and let China continue to amplify its own shortcomings, as it seems intent on doing. As the maxim attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte goes, Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

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