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Sino-ASEAN Relations and Wolf Warrior Diplomacy

03 Sep 2021
By Dr Phar Kim Beng
China's Foreign Minister and Thai Foreign Minister stand together during a joint press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bangkok Thailand on July 24, 2017. Source: suchitra poungkoson/Shutterstock

2021 marks the 30th anniversary of China’s relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But Chinese foreign policy behaviour towards ASEAN is not consistently peaceful and is marred by China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy.

On one hand, ASEAN is currently China’s biggest trade partner, and China is friendly with many governments, especially Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, not excluding Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia too. However, China’s attitude towards the South China Sea issue remains hyper-assertive, with China’s naval, non-naval, and even aerial assertiveness increasing.

Various incidents over the decade are illustrative. These include the 2015 declaration of South China Sea as China’s “core interest,” placing it to the equal status to Taiwan and Tibet for the first time; the slow conclusion of the second South China Sea Code of Conduct; Chinese promulgation of a coastal law that permits the legalisation of arms by coast guard.

Indeed, the standoff against the Philippines in the Whitsun Reefs; frequent violation of the North Natuna Sea of Indonesia; and a quiet but sudden intrusion into the international air space above Malaysia, and close to 89 maritime incursions into the Malaysian territorial waters between 2016 and 2019 are the excesses of “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. These moves seem to suggest that Wolf Warrior diplomacy is gaining traction.

Wolf Warrior” is used by the global media to imply a militarily beefy and diplomatically assertive China that is no longer sticking to the late Paramount Leader Deng Xiao Ping’s axiom to “hide your strength and bide your time.” Recent research affirms that Wolf Warrior diplomacy is driven partly by the desire of Chinese diplomats to position themselves at the front-line of Chinese hyper-nationalism, responding to perceptions that China is under all kinds of attacks in the cyber world. It is surmised to be particularly useful to Wolf Warriors’ future diplomatic careers.

Take the promotion of Qin Gang, for instance. Considered a “Wolf Warrior,” he has been catapulted to the top of the diplomatic echelon where he is now the Chinese ambassador to the US. Qin replaces Ambassador Cui Tiankai, who takes a more measured approach towards the policymakers in the White House and Congress.

Wolf Warriors will defend China per the more assertive interpretation of Xi Jinping Thought, perhaps driven by career incentives, as mentioned above. Not unlike Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chungying or her counterparts such as Colonel Zhao Lijian, one doubts Geng Shuang who has been promoted as the Deputy Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations can be more tactful.

Wolf Warrior diplomacy is consistent with but not required by Xi Jinping Thought. Xi’s line of thinking contains both elements of economic prosperity and the desire to fight. Precisely because Wolf Warrior diplomacy is a juxtaposition between the diplomatic cadres and their top leader, potentially it marks the rise of a revanchist China. Invariably, China’s willingness to co-exist with others, in what President Xi Jinping once called a “new great power relationship,” has to be demonstrably proven, not delayed. As a one-way discourse, it seems to go against the very grain of Jürgen Habermas’s “theory of communicative action” where he famously argued that a two way dialogue is not only possible, but needed to create a global society of converging norms.

Wolf Warrior diplomacy can be seen as a form of contemporary Chinese schadenfreude to compensate for what Bill Hayton claimed is a perceived “Century of Humiliation.” Yet, due to unsavoury past experiences too with the West, China reversibly perceives everything as a threat. This ranges from a realistic depiction of Olympic athletes to the normal opening of a Taiwan Office in Lithuania.

At the same time, it is important to note that the Wolf Warrior diplomacy can differ in degrees and issues. There are areas China can be helpful, such as having development banks that can comply with “Good Governance” underlined by the World Bank.

However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not the most powerful institution in the country, as compared to the Politburo or Chinese Communist Party Secretariat, both of which are headed by President Xi Jinping, China’s foreign policy behaviour has been a mixed bag.

Despite the trend towards Wolf Warrior diplomacy, Chinese diplomats and intelligentsia – even the laity at large – do not seem to have become unilateralist. For example, while Chinese authorities continue to prohibit the wide use of social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp to corral China against those they deem antagonistic towards China, those with the privilege to use a VPN to override the firewall are able to gain access to these platforms.

Chinese foreign policy behaviour over the last 30 years towards four member states of ASEAN – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam – which are caught up in the South China Sea conflict shows that China’s foreign policy behaviour can blow hot and cold.

Dr Phar Kim Beng is founder and CEO of Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.