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Is China pivoting away from 'wolf-warrior' diplomacy?

William Yang in Taipei
January 18, 2023

Political analysts say the appointment of a new Chinese foreign minister may reflect Beijing's attempt to soften its foreign policy approach and warm up to Western diplomats — or fortify itself against US rivalry.

Close-up image of Qin Gang, pointing a finger upwards, in front of a Chinese flag
Qin Gang could be eligible to serve three terms as China's Foreign MinisterImage: Kyodo News/IMAGO

In recent weeks, China launched a personnel reshuffle on the foreign policy front. Beijing appointed Qin Gang, former ambassador to the United States, as the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, while former foreign affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian was transferred to the Boundary and Ocean Affairs department of the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Some political analysts view these changes as possible signs that China may be pivoting from the hardline "wolf-warrior" diplomacy that has characterized China's foreign policy over the last few years. However, some experts say the personnel reshuffling doesn't necessarily change the trajectory of China's diplomatic approach.

"China's approach is still very much wolf-warrior diplomacy," said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. "I don't see any substantial change, except Qin Gang will play the role of the soft-spoken one, while [top diplomat] Wang Yi will take a tough stance."

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken und former Foreign Minister Wang Yi
China's top diplomat Wang Yi is expected to continue taking a hard stance toward partnersImage: Stefani Reynolds/AP/picture alliance

Qin, who has long been viewed as a trusted aide to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, wrote in a piece published by The Washington Post on January 4 that the development of China-US relations will remain an important mission in his new position.

"I leave the United States more convinced that the door to China-US relations will remain open and cannot be closed," they wrote, adding that relations shouldn’t be a zero-sum game and that the world is "wide enough for China and the United States to both develop and prosper."

A more tactful diplomacy?

Despite the optimism expressed by Qin, tensions between China and the US remain high. Since former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan last August, China has increased its military activities around the island. The US, meanwhile, is also seeking to strengthen security and military ties with countries like Japan and the Philippines.

According to Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University (ANU), Qin Gang is seen in some foreign policy circles as someone who is still a "wolf warrior" — but a far more tactful one.

"He speaks the language that will be endearing to the western audience, but at the same time, he is not afraid of showing teeth, as we've seen in some of his past speeches. [His appointment] is Beijing trying to rebalance the earlier era of 'wolf-warrior' diplomacy," they told DW.

For Sari Arho Havrén, a visiting researcher at the University of Helsinki specializing in China's foreign relations, "it is a tactical move to buy time."

They told DW that "China needs to strengthen its economy and break out from the relative isolation the zero-COVID policies have put it in."

Aggressiveness is coming from Beijing: German MP Johannes Vogel

Western diplomats consider Qin 'easy to work with' 

Over the last three years, China has largely isolated itself from the rest of the world, as its top officials, including Xi, were consistently absent from major international events. However, since last September, Beijing has re-emerged on the international stage, with Xi embarking upon several important trips to Central Asia and the Middle East, and conducting one-on-one meetings with world leaders along the sidelines of the G20 Summit last November.

Havrén told DW that even though European countries had begun to understand the importance of diversifying their dependencies, especially on China, they are not confident that these countries understand what China is trying to achieve with this charm offensive.

"Beijing is buying time to stabilize the situation at home while strengthening itself for the ongoing rivalry with the United States and its allies," they said.

"For them, it would be ideal if major European countries would keep or even deepen their dependencies on China, and thus make them less likely to stand by the US in the time of potential conflict," they added.

Sung from ANU said that given Qin Gang's relatively young age, he could be eligible to serve three terms as China's Foreign Minister, which would make his tenure longer than his predecessors. "He is likely going to be here for the long haul, and it will provide greater stability and predictability in China’s diplomacy going forward," they told DW.

"For western countries, that will probably be a good thing, since China's 'wolf-warrior' diplomats have been rather unpredictable over the last few years. It's never truly easy to predict which target China is going to strike next. Qin is someone that western diplomats find it easy to work with," they added.

What will be the focus of China's foreign policy in 2023?

As China tries to recalibrate its foreign policy approach under Xi's third term, Sung from ANU thinks the personnel reshuffling seems to suggest that western European countries, Australia and Canada are going to be the major focus of Beijing's foreign policy efforts in the coming years.

"One thing to note is the elevation of western Europe expertise in China's foreign ministry following the 20th Party Congress last October," they told DW.

"Five central committee members have foreign affairs portfolios, and three of them have prior experience serving either as the Deputy Foreign Minister responsible for European Affairs, or have served as senior diplomats at the Chinese embassy in the UK. What this suggests is that China will make Western Europe, and by extension some western countries, the major focus of their diplomatic engagement in the coming years," they added.

Although China and the US are trying to restart bilateral dialogue, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken set to visit Beijing next month, analysts do not expect this will lead to fundamental changes in American and Chinese positions on key foreign policy issues.

"What we are seeing right now is both Washington and Beijing recognizing that, while they are in competition, they also don’t want uncontrollable escalation and want to avoid accidents as best as they can," said Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore. "However, I don't think when it comes to the international system, the rules-based order, the position of Taiwan, there is not much shift on either side."

According to Chong, Xi will continue to defend China's interests the same way as before. They belive the recent reshuffle in personnel "is more of a tactical adjustment so China can move ahead without so much pushback."

Edited by Sou-Jie van Brunnersum