Illustration: Craig Stephens
Chi Wang
Chi Wang

Why the new US and China ambassadors are only likely to make tensions worse

  • Promoting effective engagement is more important than ever as face-to-face meetings between presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping look increasingly unlikely
  • Bellicose rhetoric won’t help promote smoother US-China engagement, which is what ambassadors should be focused on
US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping spoke by phone last week for the second time in Biden’s presidency. While a Biden administration official described the 90-minute call as “familiar” and “candid”, it ended without any agreements for Biden and Xi to meet face to face.
The Biden administration subsequently criticised Chinese officials for prioritising “propaganda” over “serious diplomatic engagement”, an indictment on China’s aggressive diplomatic tone on display during the few high-level meetings between Biden officials and their Chinese counterparts.
Such times as these – with US-China tensions mounting and travel limited by the pandemic – would traditionally be opportune for each leader to lean on their respective ambassadors. Yet, the US post is still vacant since Terry Branstad resigned last autumn.
Biden has announced the nomination of career diplomat R. Nicholas Burns to fill this vacancy, but with no timeline for his confirmation it could be months before he assumes his new role. By contrast, China promptly filled the vacancy created by the retirement of long-time ambassador Cui Tiankai with former Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang.
The appointment prompted speculation over whether Qin would evoke the bellicose “Wolf Warrior” ethos of many Chinese diplomats in recent years. Named after a series of nationalistic Chinese films, “wolf warrior” diplomats have made headlines by loudly defending China against foreign criticism, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic.


Chinese foreign ministry spokesman claims US army brought coronavirus to Wuhan

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman claims US army brought coronavirus to Wuhan
Qin’s tenure as Foreign Ministry spokesman predated the “wolf warrior diplomacy” label. Even so, his rhetoric during this period would be considered an example of this diplomatic tone, which remains as popular in China as it is derided in the West.

The reaction to Qin’s appointment represents this dichotomy. In reflecting on Qin’s tenure as a Foreign Ministry spokesman, NPR noted Qin’s “excoriating one-liners” while the Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times praised his “witty comments” and “directness”.

Some initial US coverage of Qin’s appointment denied he was of the “wolf warrior” persuasion. “By dispatching Mr Qin to Washington, China’s leadership is indicating its desire to have a skilful diplomat to help restore regular, high-level meetings between the two sides,” said The Wall Street Journal, which also noted Qin’s “polished demeanour” and his perception “as a measured career diplomat rather than a high-wattage warrior”.

Deeper analysis of his background largely tempered these expectations, and his speech last week for the National Committee of US-China relations all but eradicated them. A Politico headline referenced the new ambassador going “full wolf”.


China’s US envoy Qin Gang strikes conciliatory note on arrival in Washington

China’s US envoy Qin Gang strikes conciliatory note on arrival in Washington

But whether this rhetoric is popular in China is largely beside the point. It is antithetical to promoting smoother engagement between the United States and China, which is what the ambassador should be focused on.

For example, the wolf warrior rhetoric in Qin’s recent speech completely overshadowed his other observations about US-China relations. Qin noted that the US and China have cooperated despite severe differences in the past.

“Fifty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, the elder generation of Chinese and American leaders showed great strategic wisdom, vision and courage. They went beyond ideological differences and reopened the door of China-US relations,” he said.

He also highlighted how increased engagement between the US and China in the 50 years since this historic decision has benefited both countries and led to greater stability across the Asia-Pacific and around the world.


Are Xi Jinping’s China and Donald Trump’s US destined for armed conflict?

Are Xi Jinping’s China and Donald Trump’s US destined for armed conflict?
Likewise, he disavowed the notion of the “new Cold War” framework that has become popular on cable news and in certain politicians’ speeches. “It would be absurd and dangerous to apply the ‘Cold War playbook’ to today’s China-US relations,” Qin said. As he noted, the China of today is not the Soviet Union of the mid-20th century.

Though he suggested the Soviet Union’s Communist Party was corrupt and detached from its people in a way China’s is not, he correctly pointed out the most glaring difference between the two eras. While the US and Soviet Union had minimal trade ties, the economies of the US, China and their allies and partners around the world are closely linked.

Qin ended his speech by noting how the world is experiencing “major changes unseen in a century” and “on these issues concerning mankind’s future, coordination and cooperation between China and the US … become all the more necessary and urgent”.

While I support Qin’s messaging, I am not optimistic that his calls for cooperation will be met with enthusiasm. Public perception of China is plummeting in the US and elsewhere. Much as I disagree with the “new Cold War” rhetoric, the words of an ambassador will not be enough to end these comparisons, especially when they are accompanied by “wolf warrior” rhetoric that reinforces these attitudes.

China should embody the gentle giant, not the wolf warrior

On the contrary, such verbiage is only going to amplify the Biden administration’s calls for a multilateral approach to confronting China. Burns, Biden’s nominee for China ambassador, endorsed this approach in a tweet earlier this year. He asked, “Why can’t the US and EU align against China on trade, human rights, 5G, democracy and the future of Hong Kong and Taiwan? We’ll be much more effective by working together.”

If Burns is confirmed and continues to project such sentiment, it is likely to be just as abrasive to the Chinese audience as Qin’s “wolf warrior” rhetoric is to Americans. Considering the rocky interactions between US officials and their Chinese counterparts, Burns’ appointment does not bode well for effective diplomacy between the US and China going forward.
Hopes for a Biden-Xi meeting during the upcoming Group of 20 summit in October are waning as Xi might opt to attend only virtually. Xi has not left China in more than 600 days, and it seems unlikely he would break this trend for a face-to-face meeting with Biden.

If the pair do not meet in Rome, there is no obvious opportunity for them to meet for the foreseeable future. Under these circumstances, it will be more important than ever for Biden and Xi to rely on their ambassadors, neither of whom seem focused on promoting more effective engagement.

Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation