Why China’s new ambassador to the US is unlikely to go full “wolf warrior”

Image: Reuters/Yuri Gripas
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China has a new man in Washington.

Qin Gang, 55, left for his new assignment on Tuesday and announced his arrival with a cheery tweet from New York’s JFK Airport on Wednesday (July 28).

Later, he said he would quarantine for 14 days, and then get down to work.

The US-China relationship isn’t particularly warm at the moment, with officials from both countries having yet another prickly meeting over the weekend, but in his first remarks in the US Qin struck a cordial note, along with the obligatory reference to statesman Henry Kissinger, who helped the US and Communist China open diplomatic ties in the 1970s.

“I firmly believe the door of US-China relations, which is already open, cannot and should not be closed,” said Qin, who replaces Cui Tiankai, who departed in June after eight years in Washington.

Qin is a career diplomat who’s served three separate stints in the UK, most recently from 2010-2011, where he presided over a feel-good moment of “panda diplomacy” during a better era of UK-China ties. In his time in Beijing, he has handled western European affairs for the foreign ministry, been a ministry spokesman, and in 2018 was promoted to vice minister for foreign affairs.

Given Qin’s repeat postings in Britain, some were surprised not to see him return as ambassador; meanwhile, many had expected that Zheng Zeguang, who was posted to the US twice, most recently from 2005-2008, and also served on the North America desk of the Chinese foreign ministry, would end up in Washington. Instead, Zheng arrived as China’s top envoy to Britain in June.

“Everybody assumed [Qin] would be the next ambassador to the UK…There was almost a natural split there with one having focused on the UK and one having focused on the US. In fact, it’s gone vice versa,” said a person active in the UK-China community who crossed paths with Qin.

Some see Qin’s posting to Washington as a sign that proximity to Chinese president Xi Jinping, deepened during Qin’s time as director of protocol responsible for arrangements for state visits, may have been a greater factor in the choice than familiarity with the US.

Qin “has extensive experience dealing with Western media and with politicians from his time in London,” said Peter Martin, author of China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, a forthcoming book on the evolution of Chinese diplomacy. “At the same time, if you speak with European diplomats who have dealt with him in recent years in Beijing, he’s also capable of delivering very, very tough messages and demonstrating loyalty to Xi Jinping’s agenda at a very personal level.”

Where does Qin fit in Chinese diplomacy?

Well before the rise of the term “wolf warrior,” a reference to an especially aggressive brand of nationalistic messaging by China, there have always been competing diplomatic tendencies, notes Martin. On one side, that involves trying to charm and persuade, as when hosting former president Donald Trump at the Forbidden City, while the other is represented by the abrasive posturing now manifested in social media performances by decidedly undiplomatic diplomats.

In the past decade, the combative tendency has become more noticeable as China has grown more confident, while the US and other Western powers struggled with the global financial recession and later, the pandemic. Xi wants China to express itself more confidently, and a growing cult around the Chinese leader encourages underlings to actively demonstrate they’re following his cues.

While many may be wondering if Qin will exemplify “wolf warrior” diplomacy in his new role, it’s worth noting that he’s a veteran of an age of traditional Chinese diplomacy, just like Cui, rather than one formed by the social media era. While he’s known for robustly defending China, and throwing zingers at journalists during his two terms as spokesman at China’s foreign ministry, those who’ve tracked him or encountered him describe him as tough, but also cordial and eloquent.

“I think he’s one of those diplomats who is able to become wolf warrior but also then soften it…it’s more subtle than a sledgehammer wolf warrior,” said the person who had encountered Qin in the UK. “I suspect there is a core of steel there, because I just don’t see how you would get to that position without that.”

Qin has said that China has the right to defend itself robustly, and has dismissed the term “wolf warrior” as used by “evil wolves” who are trying to smear the country. While he will deliver blunt messages, we shouldn’t expect to see him tweeting images calculated to gravely insult the US establishment or spreading conspiracy theories about where the coronavirus emanated, in the style of spokesman Zhao Lijian, who developed a controversial Twitter persona in Pakistan before being elevated to deputy director of information in the foreign ministry in 2019.

The more vociferous online style is more common among slightly lower-ranked officials, rather than the top Chinese envoy—examples include the consuls in Rio de Janeiro or Kolkata, while Zhao was deputy chief of mission when he was in Pakistan. Since last year, though, it has been adopted by ambassadors in certain European nations—but not in the US.

“Although we have seen examples of wolf-warrior diplomacy against the United States, the tone has always been much more measured against the US than it has been against, say, Australia, Britain, France, or Canada,” said Martin. “And the reason is that China still recognizes the US economy and the US military is much, much larger, than China’s and that it’s not possible for China to deal with the US in the same way that they do with smaller countries. So there is a greater degree of competitive respect that is built in there.”

What can Qin achieve as China’s ambassador to the US?

In 2017, Qin recalled with pride the military flyover that Germany organized for Xi’s arrival in 2015.

“Protocol is a demonstration of politics and a barometer of bilateral relations,” he told Chinese TV in a series about diplomacy (video, 19:30).

Given that view, he must have found the temperature upon his arrival in the US rather chilly. According to the South China Morning Post, he was not welcomed by senior State Department officials, unlike the high-level welcome accorded to his predecessor Cui in 2013. In addition, he has no counterpart: the position of US ambassador to China has been vacant since October 2020.

In these conditions, managing the US-China relationship isn’t going to be easy. Qin acknowledged the difficulty of his new job in Wednesday’s remarks:

…China and the United States, the two big countries which are different in history, culture, social systems, and development stage are entering a new round of mutual exploration, understanding and adaptation, trying to find a way to get along with each other in the new era. The China-US relationship has come to a new critical juncture, facing not only many difficulties and challenges but also great opportunities and potentials. Where this important relationship will be headed is vital for the well-being of the Chinese and American peoples and for the future of the world. What the two two peoples and the international community hope for is a sound, healthy, growing China-US relationship.

As China heads into a crucial year in 2022, it will be important to stabilize ties with the US. In February, for example, Beijing will host the Winter Olympics and a campaign is gaining momentum in the US Congress to call for a boycott of the Games.

Later in the year, the Communist Party will hold its all-important congress, which will set the terms for the country’s leadership through 2027. Given that Xi canceled term limits after the last congress, many political observers of China expect him to defy norms limiting time in power that developed after the stormy three-decade rule of Mao Zedong.

“Xi Jinping’s bid for a third term as China’s president will be controversial in the West and of course we’ve got the ongoing investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. And then in the US, you’ll have the mid-term elections. So between those things I think it’s very difficult to see how there can be any kind of bright spot in US-China relations or any kind of real positive momentum,” said Martin. “I think the best we can hope for is this kind of a stabilization of the relationship, maybe some more formal dialogs emerging, and a leadership meeting at some point between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden.”