The Origins and Consequences of China's 'Wolf Warrior Diplomacy'

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meets with Xi Jinping, president of the People's Republic of China, at the Great Hall of the People, Aug. 17, 2017. (Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro/U.S. Navy)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

In recent years, China's foreign policy has become more assertive and confrontational, both in terms of its aims as well as its rhetoric. The increasingly aggressive style of Chinese diplomats has been described as "Wolf Warrior Diplomacy."

It was underscored at the Sino-American summit in Anchorage, Alaska, when Chinese diplomats lambasted the U.S. for what they saw as its many shortcomings on human rights and declared that Washington does not have the moral standing to lead or to dictate to other countries how they should manage their own internal affairs. 

The term "Wolf Warrior" is derived from a 2015 Chinese-produced military action film that depicts a mythical special forces unit of the People's Liberation Army, called Wolf Warriors, pursuing a drug lord who is defended by foreign mercenaries led by an ex-U.S. Navy SEAL. The sequel, "Wolf Warrior 2," is the highest-grossing film in China.

Recently, we sat down with Peter Martin to discuss the origins and implications of China's Wolf Warrior diplomacy. Martin is a political reporter for Bloomberg News. He has written extensively on escalating tensions in the U.S.-China relationship and reported from China's border with North Korea and its far-western region of Xinjiang. He holds degrees from the University of Oxford, Peking University and the London School of Economics.

His latest book, "China's Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy," is scheduled for release in June.

Joseph Micallef: The term "Wolf Warrior Diplomacy" has been used to describe a style of Chinese foreign policy that is more nationalistic, assertive and critical in Beijing's relations with other countries. Is that a fair description of that policy or is there more to it?

Peter Martin: On one level, China's "wolf warrior" diplomats reflect the leadership's belief that the country is now too strong to be pushed around. Chinese diplomacy grew more assertive in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, and that trend accelerated after Xi Jinping became leader of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, in 2012. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a belief among many Chinese leaders that the West is faltering and that China's time has come. The tone of Chinese diplomacy has changed accordingly.  

At the same time, it's important to understand that confidence isn't the only motivation for this more assertive style of diplomacy. Chinese diplomats are also behaving this way in a bid to prove their political and ideological loyalty to the leadership in Beijing. 

JM: This is not the first time that Beijing has adopted a more confrontational and assertive stance in its foreign policy. Is this just a recurring feature of China's foreign policy or is it different this time? Is there a common set of circumstances that triggers this type of behavior?

PM: Good question. Ever since the People's Republic of China, or PRC, was founded in 1949, its diplomats have cycled between efforts to charm the world and periods of assertiveness when Chinese diplomats lashed out. Time magazine described a speech one Chinese envoy delivered at the United Nations in 1950 as "two awful hours of rasping vituperation." In the 1960s, a Chinese diplomat even wielded an ax outside the Chinese mission in London. 

These displays of assertiveness have tended to coincide with political crackdowns at home and with a greater focus on ideology in domestic politics. Under Xi Jinping, Chinese diplomats have watched the Party punish more than 1.5 million officials in a sweeping anti-corruption crackdown and abolish presidential term limits. They've also watched as the government has set up "re-education" camps in Xinjiang and had to defend these policies to the world. So I think that's what's going on now: a combination of newfound confidence and deep insecurity.

JM: Is rising nationalism the driver of "Wolf Warrior Diplomacy"? Is it the cause or the effect? Does Beijing drive Chinese nationalist aspirations or does public opinion drive Beijing's hard-line stance?

PM: It's a combination of both. The leadership in Beijing has long used the idea that it saved China from weakness and foreign aggression as a justification for its continuing rule. Premier Zhou Enlai, the founding father of Chinese diplomacy, promised that PRC diplomats would "struggle" against the CCP's enemies and act like the "People's Liberation Army in civilian clothing," in contrast with what he portrayed as the weakness and capitulation of previous generations of Chinese diplomats. Beijing's envoys have had to live up to this promise to act tough from the very beginning. 

In the 1990s, as internet use took off in China, online nationalists began to question why its diplomats seemed so polite and deferential with foreign counterparts -- especially in their communications with America and Japan. The foreign ministry even reported receiving calcium tablets in the mail from citizens who wanted Chinese diplomats  to strengthen their backbones. Officials like former foreign minister Li Zhaoxing complained about the tremendous pressure they felt to meet these expectations and -- in response -- they often launched into what we now call "wolf warrior" tactics like dressing down foreign counterparts in meetings and haranguing the foreign press. 

What's happened under Xi is that pressure to act tough now comes from both above and below. In his speeches, Xi talks about the "obvious advantages" of China's system and has declared that China "stands tall in the East." According to my friend Keith Zhai's reporting for The Wall Street Journal, Xi has also issued handwritten notes to the foreign ministry telling diplomats to display "fighting spirit." In many ways, Chinese diplomats are now acting like the online nationalists of the 1990s and 2000s always hoped they would. 

JM: Strategically, what does China get from "Wolf Warrior Diplomacy"? From a foreign policy standpoint, is this a dead end? Does it need to pivot to a less confrontational stance and, if so, how does it do that?

PM: I think it's pretty difficult to see these tactics as a success. While Trump was president, Beijing could make the case that he was driving U.S. foreign policy and America's allies were simply falling into line behind him. But now it's pretty clear that the bipartisan consensus in favor of a stronger U.S. China policy has deep roots, and so too do the growing misgivings of U.S. allies from NATO partners to Japan and Australia. 

It's possible to make a case that the tactics don't fall quite as flat in the developing world. Still, the combative approach to diplomacy certainly hasn't worked well with India, in Brazil or with a lot of Pacific island nations. So I personally find it difficult to see how it can be seen as a success.

A pivot away from these tactics is certainly possible in the medium to long term. There are voices inside the Chinese foreign policy establishment who recognize just how counterproductive the last few years have been for Chinese diplomacy and would like to see some kind of reset. And in the past, some of the most impressive and successful periods have followed major reputational setbacks like the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Square massacre. Still, I don't see much space for this in the next few years: Xi Jinping appears to like the new tone. 

JM: The recent Sino-American summit in Alaska was largely an impasse. Beijing got none of the concessions it was hoping for. Ditto for the U.S. Is this the immediate future of Sino-American relations or was the confrontation just for show?

PM: There's an extent to which the Chinese side was acting tough for domestic audiences. The display certainly played well online, with some stores even selling merchandise displaying Politburo member Yang Jiechi's combative words to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. From what I understand, the tone inside the room after the opening statements was far more constructive and -- as Chinese leaders like to point out -- the two countries do have genuine shared interests when it comes to climate change and maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula (even if their precise objectives are often at odds). As such, there's still a decent chance that a more predictable and stable U.S.-China relationship will develop during the Biden presidency.

Still, the chances of any more fundamental accommodation are slim. The truth is that the downturn in relations between the two countries is rooted in domestic changes, which are unlikely to change any time soon. Unless China fundamentally shifts its approach to industrial policy, takes a softer line on its territorial claims or fundamentally alters its policies in Xinjiang, for example, it's very difficult to see U.S. leaders softening their stance either. The deep roots of the conflict underscore another reason that Chinese diplomats have been drawn to wolf warrior tactics in recent years: Their chances of actually persuading U.S. counterparts on the merits of their positions are slim. 

JM: Thank you.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to for consideration.

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