China and the US have been at loggerheads on almost all fronts, but with tensions continuing into the Joe Biden presidency, where is the relationship heading? As part of a series taking the temperature of bilateral ties, Minnie Chan looks at what is driving the rise of Wolf Warrior diplomacy in China. Chu Yin realised very quickly that his comments had displeased the Chinese foreign ministry. At a seminar in Beijing on July 14, Chu, a professor at the University of International Relations and deputy director of the Centre for China Globalisation (CCG), warned against falling into a trap of “mirroring internal propaganda in external publicity”. It was seen as an attack on the aggressive Wolf Warrior style of diplomacy deployed increasingly by China’s diplomats in recent years. “In the early days, we believed [speaking] good English would help [to tell China’s story],” Chu said. “Now, we are able to use fluent and idiomatic English when telling China stories, but our foreign counterparts don’t understand at all.” From Cultural Revolution to Wolf Warrior: Chinese diplomats on edge of a new era Chu’s comments were first reported on July 15? by Lianhe Zaobao , a Chinese-language daily newspaper in Singapore, and were widely picked up by local and foreign media outlets in Hong Kong and Taiwan. But the newspaper deleted the report from its website the next day, after Chu received warnings from a high level that the Chinese foreign ministry was dismayed, according to a journalist at the newspaper. Neither the newspaper nor Chu responded to requests for comment. Chinese domestic media also removed all follow-up articles about Chu’s comments. “Chu simply expressed his worries; he wasn’t aware that such normal comments would raise concern and even drag him into trouble,” a friend of Chu said. Chu made the comments at a seminar to promote a book published by the CCG about how to create new narrative methods for China’s external publicity. The backlash over his assessment reflects a bigger internal conflict between pandas and wolves in China’s foreign policy community, political analysts say. China asks Wolf Warriors to find wisdom in Communist Party history A liberal and outspoken scholar on the mainland, Chu has published many articles about his concerns over nationalist sentiment on social media, including his criticism of posts mocking India for its Covid-19 crisis . In his comments at the seminar, Chu said Beijing had spent heavily shaping its international image, but there were three main problems with the messaging. He said the approach had led to greater conflict and cultural misinterpretation between China and foreign counterparts; and less professionalism in the story told, making it more difficult to properly convey the leadership’s intended meaning to the outside world. There was also global reputational damage from domestic hawkish opinion leaders on social media. The incident raised concerns about just how much the “peace-loving panda diplomacy” China has adopted over the years is giving way to Wolf Warrior diplomacy – a term derived from a popular patriotic Chinese action film, Wolf Warrior 2 , that depicts a tougher approach by its diplomats in handling China’s relations with other nations. China’s diplomats have become known increasingly for a combative style that led to them being labelled Wolf Warriors. One of them, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian , has often used social media to attack foreign counterparts, including with an unproven conspiracy theory claiming that the US could have brought the coronavirus to Wuhan , the pandemic’s initial epicentre. “The overwhelming influence of Wolf Warrior diplomacy has been consistent with the leadership’s advocacy of a ‘struggle strategy’ that called repeatedly for a ‘dare to fight’ spirit to defend China’s national interests,” said Chen Daoyin, a political commentator and former professor at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. Wolf Warrior diplomacy is justified against West’s criticism: envoy While observers are divided over whether such an approach causes damage or boosts China’s image, they said the Wolf Warrior approach was gaining dominance because of major changes in China’s relations with other countries, particularly the United States. “The qualitative relations of today’s Sino-US bilateral ties were fundamentally altered as Joe Biden has continued to suppress China even harder since he took office, pushing Beijing to hit back with all-out efforts,” said Zhu Feng, an international relations professor at Nanjing University. Since Biden became US president in January, Beijing and Washington have continued the tit-for-tat sanctions targeting each other’s sensitive industries and individuals, while their divergences over Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang , as well as the origins of that pandemic, have become deadlocks. Chinese policymakers and observers had once hoped Biden would overturn some of his predecessor’s China policies, such as removing visa restrictions for Chinese. But recent months have seen tensions between the two continue to escalate over matters such as the sanctions, the recent arrival of a military plane in Taiwan and Washington teaming up with allies to send warships to the South China Sea. “China and the US have entered the stage of great power competition, meaning their ongoing strategic struggles will become long-standing phenomena,” Zhu said. “The increasing hostility has exhausted the presupposed professional humility, mutual respect and trust between the two countries’ high-level diplomats.” For decades, Beijing adopted two different kinds of messaging for domestic and foreign audiences when promoting the country’s political agendas and image, with instructions that international communication and publicity institutions should use a humble, peaceful tone that was dubbed “panda diplomacy”. ‘Wolf warrior’ diplomacy has a long pedigree in China In 2009, during the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, Beijing bulked up its huge budget for external publicity to polish the country’s international image. It spent 45 billion yuan (US$7 billion) that year alone on expanding its overseas media organisations. In the years that followed, Beijing spent an estimated US$10 billion-plus annually supporting its global media network, The Economist reported in 2017, citing a study by George Washington University political scientist David Shambaugh about China’s soft power build-up. However, the traditional panda diplomacy was replaced by the more aggressive Wolf Warriors when President Xi Jinping announced that China had entered “a new era to build a strong country” at the 19th party congress in 2017. “The assertive nationalistic public diplomacy of China predated the Trump administration – it has always been there. What changed was the foreign ministry spokespersons became much more outspoken, nationalistic and sarcastic in recent years,” Shambaugh told the South China Morning Post in late July. The latest public opinion poll announced by the Pew Research Centre on June 30 shows unfavourable views of China among the world’s most advanced economies across North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific standing at or near record highs, while positive views of the US rebounded after Biden defeated Donald Trump and became US president. According to the Pew survey that polled almost 19,000 adults in 17 democracies between February and May, confidence in Xi was between 12 and 36 per cent in the 16 countries surveyed – at or near historic lows except in Singapore – compared with Biden’s average of more than 73 per cent. “China’s spending on ‘external propaganda’, which includes public diplomacy, is largely wasted money. It has not only failed to improve China’s image abroad, it has actually damaged and impaired it,” Shambaugh said. “Wolf Warrior diplomacy is absolutely not a good approach for China – it is badly tarnishing and damaging China’s international standing and projecting a very negative image. It is not the way a responsible and benign global power should behave.” In a Communist Party session in late May, Xi called on the party’s top echelon, the Politburo, to come up with better international communication with a more “credible, lovable and respectable” style. Some observers suggested it could herald a calming of the Wolf Warrior tactics. But Deng Yuwen, a former editor of Study Times who is now a US-based observer, said the advance of Wolf Warrior policy had been encouraged by the ongoing confrontation and competition between Beijing and Washington on all fronts, with the assertive foreign ministry being praised by Chinese patriots when dealing with their American counterparts. Zhu said China would maintain its Wolf Warrior attitude when dealing with the US, but for other countries, “panda diplomacy should remain in place, or the country will lose more and more friends”. A source close to China’s foreign and defence ministries said a difference in styles partly reflected struggles between the two ministries. “The foreign ministry is well known for hawkish Wolf Warrior remarks – it even criticised the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] as too ‘soft and weak’ when dealing with the United States,” said the source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “The PLA expressed concern to Xi about the foreign ministry’s Wolf Warrior diplomacy, saying it would not ‘pay the bill’ for their irresponsible remarks.” Wolf Warrior envoy hits out at Europe’s military focus in Indo-Pacific Yogesh Gupta, a former Indian ambassador to Denmark and a specialist in China-India relations, said China’s international image had suffered since the advocacy of Wolf Warrior diplomacy. “As [Chinese] senior leader Deng Xiaoping mentioned, the great powers should lie low and not indulge in verbal abuse and offensive rhetoric. Such behaviour only creates more enemies and spoils your image needlessly,” he said. Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong said the war philosophy written by Carl von Clausewitz, a well-known Prussian military theorist recommended by both Karl Marx and China’s prominent leader Mao Zedong, might be a useful reference. “In his book On War, Clausewitz warned that when you are going to get a decisive victory in a war, you should make sure that your political situation will not result in ‘exciting against new enemies’ – that will lead to a fatal defeat,” Ni said. “The best example is Japan during World War II when it was targeting China, but it provoked another much stronger enemy, the US. The war philosophy could be applied to diplomacy.”