Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian takes a question at the daily media briefing in Beijing on April 8, 2020. Photo: AFP / Greg Baker

Zhao Lijian, the increasingly controversial spokesman of China’s Foreign Ministry, this week posted a graphic (and fake) image that purported to show an Australian soldier slitting a child’s throat.

“Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian soldiers,” he tweeted in a message (subsequently removed by Twitter) accompanied by the false photo, highlighting alleged human-rights violations committed by Australian troops during the war in Afghanistan, claims that have been and continue to be investigated by Canberra. 

Zhao has a certain form. Earlier this year, he began posting allegations on social media that the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was intentionally spread by the United States as a biological weapon against China. When that narrative failed, he contended that the virus emerged in Italy.

Zhao has become the public face of the “Wolf Warrior” breed of Chinese diplomats who have consistently and seemingly pointlessly antagonized the West, yielding a collapse in the perception of China and its role in the world within the United States, Canada, Australia and Germany, among others.

Zhao’s post came just days after Beijing slapped a tariff of up to 200% on Australian wine imports. Some international media parroted Beijing’s line by framing this decision as the outcome of an ongoing “trade dispute,” when in fact it was a unilateral action by Beijing due to Canberra’s support for international investigations into China’s mass human-rights violations against the Uighurs in Xinjiang and into China’s responsibility for the Covid-19 pandemic. 

As Foreign Ministry spokesman, there can be no doubt that Zhao’s actions are sanctioned by his superiors; independent actors are non-existent in Chinese diplomacy. In light of Beijing’s increasingly outrageous public statements and actions, it is necessary to ask: What is Beijing attempting to achieve here? 

China spent decades framing itself as a “responsible power,” assiduously cultivating the image of a benign power that sought a “harmonious world.” For two decades, myriad scholars and analysts asserted that China would gradually be assimilated into existing global norms and systems and would be an essential and reliable partner on issues ranging from climate change to poverty alleviation.

The “Australian incident” appears to be yet another example of Beijing’s inability under its current leadership to climb the learning curve of international diplomacy. For all the billions of dollars it pumps around the world, for all the trade opportunities it offers developing and developed countries, for all the political shielding it can offer authoritarian states, it has won few influential friends and quickly lost a good number of pivotal allies.

In Asia, its closest allies are two of the continent’s smallest states: Cambodia and Laos. In Europe: Hungary and Serbia. In Latin America: perhaps Venezuela. A much longer list is needed for the friends and “engagers” it has lost, even just over the past 12 months.

Foremost is the United States, where the only bipartisan issue now is an anti-China foreign policy. Also on this list are the United Kingdom, Australia, and potentially Germany and Singapore. Even Sri Lanka now wavers over its loyalties to Beijing, while the leaders of Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand have had to backtrack their opening to China. 

Surpluses and deficits

Chinese foreign policy has a number of surpluses. It has a financial surplus, thanks to decades of economic growth and Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, spending and lending hundreds of billions of dollars on investment projects globally as part of the BRI. It has an attention surplus, in that the Communist Party of China doesn’t suffer from the periodical power shifts of democratic states and has historically been seen as having a distinct advantage in light of its long term time horizons.

And it has a growing military surplus, in that neighboring states are increasingly concerned about their own security, such as  Vietnam (although US military support has eased its nerves). 

However, all of these are being wasted because of its three main deficits. An empathy deficit, in that Beijing is unable (or unwilling) to understand that other countries do politics differently. As Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated when responding to recent Chinese criticism, Beijing’s problem appears to be that “Australia is being Australia.”  

A history deficit, in that Beijing’s actions are carried out via its own understanding of history – and the CPC’s utilization thereof to derive domestic legitimacy via its “more nationalist than thou” approach in the context of slowing economic growth.

Beijing now regularly frames myriad issues by drawing on its apparently bottomless well of the “century of humiliation” narrative, yet seemingly fails to grasp that anti-colonial historical narratives in other states affect its present-day relations with them. Vietnam’s centuries of colonization by China is a glaring example.  

And third (and corollary to both), a soft-power deficit, in that Chinese officials are very good at making friends with political elites in other countries but woeful at getting the bulk of the public on side. Indeed, Serbia and Hungary are allies of China in Europe, but in both these states the most pro-China are the corrupted political elite, while the majority of the public remains skeptical of Beijing’s intentions – a pattern found in numerous other states as well.

In 2020, we have seen the rise of a new, fourth deficit. Let’s call it the humility deficit.

From the Foreign Ministry’s open mockery of how European government struggled to handle the Covid-19 pandemic to its latest salvo against Australia, Beijing seems to think that it can achieve its foreign-policy objectives by making other states appear weak and ineffectual. At the same time, Chinese officials have spilled much sweat applauding Beijing’s own handling of the crisis and claiming its economy will recover much better than all others.

As such, no longer does Beijing claim merely to be an equal on the world stage, let alone a benign, cooperative actor solely interested in maintenance of the status quo. Now, it says it’s superior on many issues.

Superiority complex

State-run media this year have developed the narrative that China’s political system is not merely different from those in the West (and therefore shouldn’t be critiqued), but it is now superior to those in the West (and should serve as a guide for others). This is most obvious in China’s triumphalism over its handling of the pandemic.

Indeed, the “Wolf Warrior” diplomats no longer see fit to defend China’s political system through diplomacy, but rather seek to aggrandize it through the most undiplomatic means; through Covid schadenfreude, faked images; and outlandish threats of what might happen if another country’s government critiques China in any way. 

But China’s successes aren’t that amazing: As the World Health Organization now recognizes, governance flaws in China’s authoritarian system exacerbated the home-grown pandemic; its economy continues to have major issues (particularly in the banking sector); and this and its anti-poverty credentials have come into sharp focus amid the pandemic.

The cliché of Chinese foreign policy is that it “needs to bide its time,” the aphorism of Deng Xiaoping. But by relying on hubris, especially in the most public and undiplomatic ways, Chinese foreign-policy makers have set themselves higher standards, standards that they will struggle to achieve, setting themselves up for failure later that then can only be covered up by another show of excess confidence.

After all, diplomatic threats can be made privately and are relatively easy to walk back, and both sides can stop far short of open conflict, reaching something of a compromise. However, sanctions and “Wolf Warrior” style diplomacy are zero-sum; either China or Australia will have to admit defeat amid the wine tariffs, for instance. 

Will China’s boycott of Australian wine work? Probably not (the Morrison government appears to have dug its heels in – hard) and this will further demonstrate that Beijing’s overwhelming reliance on its economic size is simply not fit for purpose in global diplomacy in 2020. 

Last month, the China Chamber of Commerce in the UK warned Britain that it would lose out on billions in investment if it continued to critique Beijing’s behavior, chiefly over Xinjiang and Hong Kong, although numerous analysts subsequently pointed out that China isn’t even a top-10 investor in the UK, with even Belgium and Spain more important for investment.

Beijing has been able to do nothing about international bans against Huawei, nor the Donald Trump administration’s near-weekly “drip, drip, drip” of new restrictions on trade and economic engagement with China. 

Moreover, relations with China have become a point of domestic political contention in Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has continued to hold the line against intense pressure to cave to China’s demands to release Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou (awaiting extradition to the United States) and to make a deal to ensure the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the two Canadian citizens held in China and overwhelmingly seen in Canada as victims of Beijing’s newfound turn to “hostage diplomacy.”

Apparently everyone in Beijing has misplaced their respective copies of Satow’s Guide to Diplomatic Practice.

At the end of the day, what all of this reveals is insecurity in Beijing: a regime that could have held out for another decade or so to claim its place in a revised, bipolar or multipolar geopolitical order. However, its sultantistic leader has entirely abrogated his country’s carefully structured model of stable leadership transition.

China has long confronted the demographic issue of the “little emperor” phenomenon, the spoiled, entitled only child, whose every whim is catered to – a situation deriving from decades of “one child” policies. Perhaps contemporary Chinese diplomacy is best termed the “Little Emperor Model.”

Noting the season, apparently unable to wait until Christmas, Beijing is diving under the tree to unwrap the presents early and then throwing a temper tantrum when its decision to do so is not applauded.

David Hutt is a political journalist covering Europe-Asia affairs. He is Southeast Asian columnist for The Diplomat, and a columnist and correspondent for Asia Times.

Bradley J Murg PhD is senior adviser and Distinguished Senior Research Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace in Phnom Penh.