Foreign Minister Wang Yi (right) chats with Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan (centre) and Thailand’s Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai as they arrive at the Asean-China Ministerial Meeting at a hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on August 4. Photo: AP
Chee Yik-wai
Chee Yik-wai

South China Sea: stakes are too high for China to use Wolf Warrior diplomacy in Southeast Asia

  • Preserving peace in the region depends on Beijing avoiding aggressive diplomacy and making progress in talks with its neighbours
  • Otherwise, China could shift from being seen as a reliable neighbour and trading partner to a threat
The Chinese ambassador to France’s recent remarks on French television about US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit has reaffirmed that Beijing’s controversial Wolf Warrior diplomacy will remain a feature when dealing with the West. However, Beijing should be wary of applying the same diplomatic approach to Asean countries, some of which have territorial disputes with China.
Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, who often do not see eye to eye on foreign policy because of competing interests, have been unified in calling for “ maximum restraint” in the Taiwan Strait, fearing they could be next in line for Chinese military threats if the situation was to escalate.
From Chinese officials promoting Covid-19 conspiracy theories that favour China to Foreign Minister Wang Yi calling for Chinese diplomats to be “ wolf warriors”, Beijing has found itself in multiple diplomatic controversies by defending its handling of the pandemic and territorial sovereignty.
With Pelosi’s Taiwan trip, Chinese patriots see that the country is again being targeted, and want a strong external response. This growing nationalism has left Beijing concerned about domestic stability, particularly head of the 20th Party Congress.
It has left Beijing with little choice but to craft responses at the earliest opportunity to deflect criticism, for example by seeking to embarrass other nations over their handling of pandemic containment, or to punish them for holding a different understanding of the “one China” policy.

However, Beijing’s diplomacy with its Asean neighbours remains comparatively restrained, despite the difficult stances on the South China Sea. This must be maintained by China and Asean at all costs to preserve peace in Asia.


The South China Sea dispute explained

The South China Sea dispute explained
Beijing has been eager to counter its increasingly negative image worldwide by emphasising its “Chinese exceptionalism” narrative, providing leadership in key global challenges such as the pandemic, poverty alleviation and climate change. Sometimes these narratives are conveyed reasonably while, at other times, it can lack sensitivity.
Chinese exceptionalism is often connected to great power reformism, harmonious inclusionism and, more importantly, pride in its civilisation. While Chinese exceptionalism does have some basis in fact, it is derived from a selective use of Beijing’s extensive historical and cultural experiences.

Looking back, imperial China’s exceptionalism was enshrined in the ruling elites’ claims of China’s centrality and superiority in the known world, as well as its magnanimous and benevolent foreign policy. Therefore, the “Middle Kingdom” was entitled to tribute payments from foreign rulers, widely considered as duties by the latter in exchange for gifts and permission to trade in China.

Of course, exceptionalism does not necessarily determine policy, and is merely one factor in understanding the world view of Chinese ruling elites. However, China’s claim that its rise will be peaceful will only be trusted if it is backed by sincerity through real decisions and action.

Chinese foreign minister walks out of Asean events amid Taiwan row

Some argue that the Ming dynasty and ancient China in general sought to share the benefits of peace with other nations by conducting a conflict-free foreign policy. For example, Zheng He had the world’s most powerful navy at his disposal yet he did not seek to conquer foreign lands during his expeditions – in stark contrast to European colonialism.
This shows another aspect of Chinese exceptionalism – namely, that China will include other nations in its foreign policy domain and promote their development under the influence and constraints of Chinese civilisation. This resembles the approach of today’s Belt and Road Initiative.
This kind of approach has drawn intense scepticism in the West but has found some acceptance within Asean. That trust could quickly erode, though, if China adopts a Wolf Warrior strategy with Asean leaders with whom it does not necessarily agree.

If that happens, China would go from being a reliable neighbour and trading partner to being seen as a threat against which Asean must defend itself. So far, Beijing’s strategy is to lay all the blame on powers outside the region, which disregards Asean countries’ own insecurities.

Deng Xiaoping advocated following a low-profile foreign policy, which generally avoided conflict and tensions that could divert resources from domestic growth. That approach brought many benefits and laid the groundwork for modern China’s emergence.
In fact, China has become a victim of its own success in diplomacy after rising to become the world’s second-largest economy and a country with great economic and political clout. China’s wealth has enabled it to invest in and modernise its military, which understandably worries Asean countries involved in South China Sea disputes.
As a leading trading nation with ambitions to become the world’s sole technology leader, China inevitably extends its influence well beyond its borders. Continuing Deng’s “hide your strength, bide your time” foreign policy might be impractical in areas in which competing nations might not be eager for cooperation.
China has repeatedly told Asean countries not to take sides in the South China Sea dispute. Would it do the same if Asean countries pressed their territorial claims in the wake of Pelosi’s Taiwan visit if the United States decides to continue with its freedom of navigation operations?
The stakes are too high. Wolf Warrior diplomacy towards Asean must be avoided – especially amid the lack of meaningful progress over a China-Asean code of conduct.

Chee Yik-wai is a Malaysia-based intercultural specialist and the co-founder of Crowdsukan focusing on sport diplomacy for peace and development