In the days of Deng Xiaoping, the maintenance of a low profile was the cornerstone of China's diplomacy; there was even a specific Chinese idiom, 韬光养晦 [tāoguāngyǎnghuì], meaning to conceal one’s strengths and bide one’s time, which epitomized this position (Schortgen, 2018, p.21). Yet today China's diplomatic strategy has shifted, and is now referred to as 'Wolf Warrior' diplomacy (Zhu, 2020; Allen-Ebrahimian, 2020). Why did this transformation in China's diplomatic approach take place? Three causes can be identified at the root of this shift. First, China's economic power has grown tremendously since the 1980s, with China currently the biggest economy in Purchasing Power Parity and the second biggest in GDP, as well as the largest trading partner of 128 countries (Bird, 2014; Ghosh, 2020). Second, after a century of humiliation (1839-1949), the CPC wants China to recover its status as a great power, which includes asserting diplomatic positions over other countries (Xinhua, 2021). Third, Xi made foreign policy more of a priority in light of his own international ambitions, the diplomatic vacuum left by Trump's USA and Xi's need to assert his authority domestically. As China grows more powerful, and its diplomats grow more assertive aggressive, navigating diplomatic relations with China will be a challenge for diplomats from across the world.
Causes for China’s shift in diplomatic strategy
"Observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership" (Dent, 2010, p.210). This now famous quote was coined by China's former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and was meant to characterize China's foreign policy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, anno 2021 China's diplomacy is commonly characterized as 'Wolf Warrior diplomacy' (Zhu, 2020; Allen-Ebrahimian, 2020). To understand this shift, this article will look at the history of China’s diplomacy, and three reasons for its changing nature.
From diplomatic isolation to global diplomatic power
In the first two decades after its foundation in 1949, the People's Republic of China (PRC) was, for the most part, diplomatically isolated. In 1962, China's alliance with the Soviet Union faltered before ultimately crumbling. Most of the developed world had diplomatic ties with Taiwan until the 1970s rather than with the PRC, and China was barred from the United Nations system (Radchenko, 2010; Johnston, 2014). This began to change when the PRC replaced Taiwan at the UN and its Security Council in 1971 and the US normalized its ties with China in 1979 (Johnston, 2014). Progressively, China joined the ranks of the global diplomatic community. Still, Deng Xiaoping urged his country to "hide [its] capacities and bide [its] time" and to maintain "a low profile and never claim leadership" (Dent, 2010, p.210). It seemed logical at the time - China's economy was growing but not yet fully stable, and in those early years China's diplomats were ill-equipped to navigate he world of international diplomacy - Beijing had conducted little formal multilateral diplomacy between the 1950s and 1960s (Dent, 2010, p.210). The Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 was a temporary setback for the diplomatic normalisation of China, resulting in a US and European Union arms embargo on China which continues today (Evron, 2019).
However, a few years later China's increasing participation in the international community was propelled forwards - China had become a member of 50 intergovernmental organisations by 2000, and joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 (Kent, 2001). Today, the days of China's diplomatic modesty are behind us. China now uses its veto in the UN Security Council significantly more frequently than it did before, having vetoed eleven resolutions in the last decade, as opposed to only having resorted to it five times between 1971 – 2010 (Dag Hammerskjöld Library, n.d.). The country now also proposes civil servants for senior roles in international organisations, including the current Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union. In the meantime, increasingly aggressive diplomatic responses by China towards perceived offenses have been labelled as 'Wolf Warrior diplomacy' by various scholars and analysts’ (see for instance Zhu, 2020; Allen-Ebrahimian, 2020). For example, the Chinese embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, told Venezuelan officials to "put on a face mask and shut up" after officials allegedly called COVID-19 the 'Wuhan' or 'Chinese' virus (Allen-Ebrahimian, 2020). What can explain China's increasing diplomatic assertiveness over the past decades?
1. China's growing economic power
China’s increased leverage and lessened diplomatic tact stems from the incredible economic expansion it has enjoyed over the past 40 years. In 2020, China's GDP was 77 times as large as in 1980 according to the World Bank (n.d.). China became the second largest economy in the world in 2010 when it surpassed Japan, and in 2014 the International Monetary Fund stated that China had become the largest economy in the world by Purchasing Power Parity (a measure that expresses the GDP of a country based on the domestic price of certain goods) (Bird, 2014). Moreover, China is the largest trading partner of 128 countries (Ghosh, 2020). This gives China enormous economic leverage, which it wields as a diplomatic tool – or weapon. The global financial crisis of 2008, which China weathered far better than the US and the EU, gave Beijing extra confidence in its growing diplomatic assertiveness.
2. China's national rejuvenation
At the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Xi claimed that "China's rejuvenation has become a historical inevitability" (Xinhua, 2021). To explain, the CPC views the period between 1839, which coincides with the start of the first Opium War, and 1949, when the CPC gained power and established the PRC, as the 'century of humiliation'. China’s humiliation can be identified in its mistreatment by imperial powers, and its subjection to becoming the de facto semi-colony of powers such as the US, the United Kingdom, France and Japan. Since 1949, the CPC has worked tirelessly to rejuvenate the nation, aiming to once again transform China into a great power. This means that China is no longer accepting criticism from other countries and is able to enforce sanctions of a diplomatic or alternative nature when it considers itself under attack (Kaufman, 2010).
3. The increased importance of foreign policy under Xi Jinping
China's more muscular diplomatic posture did not start with Xi, but rather with his predecessor Hu Jintao; however Xi's rise to power certainly accelerated China's diplomatic assertiveness. This may partly be the case because foreign policy in general has become more high profile under Xi. To explain this, it is important to understand that China's political decision-making leans on a dual-structure, consisting of the party structure (of the CPC) and the state structure. The party hierarchy being dominant, the important decisions are thereby made by the CPC, led by the Politburo. For a ministry to be influential, it is thus important that it has a representative within the Politburo, which was not the case for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs between 1998 and 2017. In 2017, Yang Jiechi, then State Councillor for Foreign Affairs, which is a higher ranking position than Minister of Foreign Affairs, joined the Politburo. This gave the Ministry of Foreign Affairs a seat at the table for important decisions, allowing it to act more powerfully (Cheng, 2020). The elevated importance of foreign policy in China has multiple reasons. First, it reflects Xi's aspirations of being an active leader on the international stage. Those aspirations are most clearly illustrated by Xi's Belt and Road Initiative, an initiative that enabled China to improve its infrastructural links with the rest of Eurasia. Second, since Yang joined the Politburo the year after the election of Donald Trump, one could also argue that China's increased emphasis on foreign policy is a reaction to Trump's withdrawal of the US from the global stage. Simply put, China has identified a new potential role in the diplomatic vacuum that Trump's isolationist policies created. Third, with China's economic growth slowing and unrest in Hongkong and Xinjiang, by acting forcefully on the international stage Xi may want to reassert its authority at home. Thus, China's Wolf Warrior diplomacy may be intended as much for a domestic audience as it is for an international one (Zhu, 2020; Bishop, 2020). In short, a combination of Xi's global ambitions, Trump's isolationism and the perceived need for domestic authority made foreign policy for Xi a more important objective than it was before, resulting in a more forceful style of diplomacy.
To conclude, China's diplomacy has become more assertive since the days of Deng Xiaoping due to the enormous growth of China's economic power, the perceived historical need to make China a great power again, and an increased emphasis on foreign policy under Xi. During the pandemic, the idea of Wolf Warrior diplomacy acquired a new meaning. China felt the need to diplomatically hit back at any country who dared to criticize or even question China's role in the pandemic. As China continues to grow more powerful, we may expect its diplomacy to grow more aggressive over time as well. To adapt to or counter China's newly assertive diplomatic stance? Answering this question will remain a challenge for diplomats and governments across the world.
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