In recent times, China has displayed a clear shift in diplomatic approaches, if not in its policies yet. This shift was orchestrated by the replacement of its Foreign Minister from Zhao Lijian to Qin Gang in December last year.
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After this, Zhao Lijian was declared the deputy director of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs.
The shift took place around the same time as the first in-person summit held by President Xi Jinping and Vice President Joe Biden in Indonesia, announcing the path for re-engagement of their bilateral ties.
While the shift in personnel is not fairly recent, what the global community has realized is the difference in the respective approaches of the two. As famously known in the domain of political slang, ‘wolf warrior’ Zhao Lijian has had a clear, direct, and nationalist outlook when dealing with state foreign affairs.
China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ takes a backseat
Zhao Lijian has come across as one of the most prominent Chinese leaders in the past years. He was termed the ‘wolf warrior’ in reference to an iconic nationalist film casing a Chinese forces soldier.
The term ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy refers to an aggressive and firsthand approach, one that has been leading the Xi Jinping Government.
Since taking the back role, Zhao has gained a tremendous following on social media as a result of his controversial and cutting stances on the United States of America.
In 2020, the Australian Prime Minister demanded a public apology from Zhao for posting a doctored photograph of an Australian soldier murdering an Afghan toddler, causing China a diplomatic headache.
Apart from criticizing the US administration, he has frequently accused journalists of slandering China over accusations of human rights violations in the region of Xinjiang and violent reprisals in Hong Kong.
However, it is unclear if Zhao’s post as a spokesman was lost solely due to his diplomatic moves through a nationalist lens.
According to exiled writer Wang Zhi’an, Zhao stumbled during a news conference discussing the zero-COVID demonstrations in November, scrambling his papers and offering shaky replies. It’s also unclear if China’s turn away from confrontational diplomacy indicates a real policy shift or merely a strategic shift.
China’s stance on Ukraine, for one, has been basically pro-Russian from the beginning of the crisis, despite Beijing’s claims that it wishes to end the conflict.
Repercussions of the shift
After Qin Gang, former Chinese ambassador to the U.S., was named Foreign Minister, the country signaled an alignment towards a more amicable approach with the western powers. This approach is different from the one pursuing a deadlock between China and some Western nations, opening the path for renewing policies.
Removing the outspoken Zhao from a key post in the ministry has been translated by the international community as Beijing’s move away from wolf-warrior diplomacy.
On the other hand, Mr. Qin, a close ally of President Xi Jinping, is noted for treading a tight line between safeguarding China’s interests and presenting a conciliatory front to Washington.
Some Chinese authorities appear to have understood in recent months that wolf warrior diplomacy is an issue for the country’s worldwide image.
A determined attempt is being made to persuade colleagues worldwide, particularly in the United States, that China is now eager to play nice. This is due in part to the shocks generated by substantial US decoupling measures, as well as the economic harm inflicted by China’s zero-COVID policy.
This change has coincided with several internal ones, from the possible lifting of property restraints to the current unfortunate rise in covid deaths.
What we will follow in the coming months is whether China will play a fair and good business partner’s role, as the European counterparts hope, or if it will continue to act on its wolf warrior approach via passive strategies.