Diplomacy · June 22, 2021

Better ‘wolf warriors’ than sheep in wolfskin

June 22, 2021
The Jakarta Post
(c) 2021 The Jakarta Post
Phar Kim Beng , Kuala Lumpur

There have been reports in the Sinocism newsletter managed by Bill Bishop that Chinese President Xi Jinping has asked officials who engaged in behavior the world has dubbed “wolf warrior diplomacy”, to “conduct themselves in a responsible” and “loveable” manner.

There is no telling if these “wolf warriors” will immediately cease their sharp repartee, their invariably and highly assertive interaction with the international media. Why? Old habits die hard.

In China’s retort to the recent Group of Seven summit, one of these “wolf warriors” affirmed, “G7 better take its own pulse, and its own prescription,” according to The Washington Post. Read: The G7 is sick; China is not.

As a country that was subjected to a “century of humiliation” (T. Harper, CIGH Exeter) marked by unequal treaties since the first Opium War (1832-1833), when the Manchu Dynasty had to cede a 150-year lease to the British to allow Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories to remain under the British control until 1997, China has the right to nurse its psychological wounds.

China was defeated by imperial Japan in the first Sino-Japanese War in 1894-1895, which allowed China to colonize Taiwan until Japan’s defeat at the hands of the United States and its allies with the twin atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945.

But China has always wanted to make up for lost time. Hence, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was officially established on Oct. 1, 1949, Chairman Mao’s cryptic words to the teeming millions of Chinese people at the upper gateway of Tiananmen Square was, allegedly, “China has stood up.”

As things stand, open literary sources show that President Xi is the most revered Chinese leader of all time. Throughout 2020, he and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were able to contain a pandemic that has spared no country. Given China’s buoyant mood, President Xi looks set to celebrate the CCP’s centennial in July 2021 with deep pride, according to state media outlet Global Times.

The answer to the wolf warriors’ behavior may lie in what can be termed “compulsive escalatory hyper-achievement”, or CEHA for short. Ironically, this is not entirely unjustified, but China should not allow their nationalistic fervor to come to boiling point.

Incidents of Chinese border intrusions seem to be on the rise, according to Malaysian media outlet Cilisos. Diplomatic decorum has been completely forgotten. China is losing its soft power by the day. Be they a chain of islands that the Japanese call the Senkaku or 90 percent of the South China Sea (SCS), China believes these territories all belong to them. China’s behavior on and in the seas remains a deep concern.

Just recently on June 4, a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel encroached on Malaysian waters, after the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) detected a formation of 16 Chinese military aircraft within 60 nautical miles (111 kilometers) of Sarawak earlier on May 31 (The Star, June 1, 2021). The RMAF had no choice but to scramble its jets to surveil the 16 military transport aircraft in the SCS off its Bornean coast.

That’s not all.

Local fishermen have, in fact, spotted the CCG anchored offshore in the area since 2013, according to the Malay Mail. Meanwhile, Nikkei Asia showed that Chinese aircraft have violated Indonesian air space well over 500 times.

For what it’s worth, China has the right to make any maritime claims per the 1943 Cairo Declaration, as SCS expert Bill Hayton wrote in the Philippine Strategic Forum. But Hayton added that the Cairo Declaration was completely unclear on how Japan should be asked specifically to surrender each and every one of its territorial conquests.

That said, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which many countries promulgated at the UN General Assembly in 1982 and to which China is a signatory, has disallowed any claims of marine features based on purely a historical basis from the very beginning. The 2002 Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China further prohibits any militarization of the SCS.

At any rate, the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling on the SCS affirmed China’s claim as “illegal”, as The Guardian reported. While this was a major victory for the Philippines, the CCG has refused to leave the area surrounding Scarborough Shoal since 2013.

Come what may, as the Sino-US rivalry intensifies, Chinese military aircraft that fly close to another country’s air space in an invariably furtive manner does not bode well for anyone.

US President Joe Biden is just as entitled to round up all the world’s democratic countries to form a common front. Since US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was making an official visit to Cambodia in June, it makes one wonder if the 16 Chinese aircraft flying in formation was a warning for her, too.

But perhaps things went wrong much earlier. When President Xi asked for a “new type of great power relations” at the start of then-president Barack Obama’s second term in 2012, his offer was not reciprocated.

The Obama administration’s silent treatment could not have been more humiliating, but the irony of not reciprocating President Xi’s offer is that it could well have been a blessing in disguise.

Granted that SARS-CoV-2 emerged in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, any reset to the great power relationship can be pursued only when both sides agree to mutual transparency. After all, as ex-chief editor Wang Xiangwei of the South China Morning Post affirmed in an opinion piece, China must to show the US its infectious diseases center to debunk the lab-leak theory, just as the US must show its lab to China.

In this context, perhaps the world should be more concerned about the “wolf warrior” presidencies of Biden, Xi and Vladimir Putin. All seem keen to prove that no one can push anyone around anymore.

While the antics and behavior of the wolf warriors may be disconcerting, at least China is being blunt about the current and pent-up feelings it is now unleashing. The key is not to trigger any systemic or sub-systemic war, such as over the issue of mainland China’s ownership of Taiwan.


The founder CEO of Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena