Wolf Warrior diplomats are not winning China any friends

June 30, 2020 08:41
Photo: Reuters

Four years ago, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, held a joint news conference with his Canadian counterpart, Stéphane Dion, in Ottawa when a Canadian reporter asked Dion about human rights in China, mentioning a Canadian couple, Kevin and Julia Garratt, who were detained in China in 2014 and accused of spying.

Although the question was directed at Dion, the Chinese foreign minister took it upon himself to respond. He accused the reporter, Amanda Connolly, of prejudice and arrogance. “This is totally unacceptable,” he said.

In rapid-fire fashion he asked a series of hectoring questions. “Do you understand China? Have you been to China? Do you know that China has come from a poor and backward state and lifted more than 600 million people from poverty? Do you know that China is now the world’s second biggest economy with $8,000 per capita? If we weren’t able to properly protect human rights, would China have achieved such great development? Do you know that China has incorporated protecting human rights into its Constitution?”

“You have no right to speak on this,” Wang added. “So please don’t raise such irresponsible questions again.”

This Wang diatribe was an early example of what is now known as China’s wolf warrior diplomacy, named after two popular movies in China, Wolf Warrior (2015) and Wolf Warrior II (2017), which showed Rambo-like characters. Wang, the original wolf warrior diplomat, was leading the charge even before that style had a name.

Connolly’s question was prompted in part by the detention of the Garratts in China, weeks after a Chinese citizen, Su Bin, was arrested in Canada in the wake of an extradition request from the United States. While his wife was released on bail in February 2015, Kevin Garratt was charged with espionage. He was released after Su waived extradition hearings and pleaded guilty in the United States to stealing military secrets.

There is an eerie resemblance between then and now. Today, China again holds two Canadians on espionage charges – former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor -- detained days after Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, a top Huawei executive, in December 2018 as the result of an extradition request by the United States.

Despite speculation of linkage between the Meng and Kovrig-Spavor cases, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa issued a statement Saturday denying any linkage and denouncing “megaphone diplomacy.” The use of this term suggests that China is open to quiet talks with Canada and that some kind of deal can be worked out as long as it is not publicized.

Whether Canada wants to go down that road is something that it will have to decide.

Hostage diplomacy is so heinous that no country openly condones it. That China is suspected to practice it is because of the national image that its words and actions have created.

A foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, is one such diplomatic warrior. He planted a charge on twitter that American soldiers were responsible for the coronavirus in Wuhan.

In Australia, another diplomat warrior, ambassador Cheng Jingye, issued thinly veiled threats of an economic boycott if Canberra pushed for an inquiry into the origins of the virus.

Such aggressive diplomats work hand-in-hand with an increasingly assertive military.

Relations with neighboring India are poor after a clash on their disputed border June 15, which left 20 Indian soldiers dead and an unknown number of Chinese casualties.

In the south, maritime disputes with Southeast Asian countries remain unresolved and now include Indonesia. In April, a Chinese coast guard vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the South China Sea. Significantly, the Philippines backed Vietnam’s protest.

To the east, China’s relations with Japan, which showed signs of improvement last year, are again strained. A visit by President Xi Jinping, originally scheduled for April, won’t happen anytime soon.

Delayed originally by the pandemic, many Japanese now don’t want to see it happen at all, due in large part to the frequent appearance of Chinese government vessels in Japanese waters and their “stalking” of Japanese fishing boats.

Japan’s enthusiasm for a Xi visit dropped precipitously after China’s announcement last month that it would impose a national security law on Hong Kong.

Then, of course, there is the increasingly confrontational relationship with the United States in almost all spheres.

From Canada in the far north to Australia in the southern hemisphere, China is stoking the flames with its assertive take-no-prisoners diplomacy, a surefire formula for alienating friends and losing influence.

It is time for China to change tactics and, preferably, adopt new policy goals. The thuggish behavior associated with its diplomacy is repulsive to traditional diplomats. It is embarrassing for a major power to be associated with such practices.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.