Chinese Diplomacy Steps In It Yet Again
If you think wolf warrior diplomacy was bad, wait until you hear the latest!
For the past few years, China stood accused of practicing wolf warrior diplomacy. This was defined as a combative style in which Chinese officials were encouraged to: a) assert China’s interests more aggressively; and b) push back with extreme vehemence against any criticism of the People’s Republic of China or the Chinese Communist Party. Wolf warrior diplomacy reflected Xi Jinping’s more aggressive second-term foreign policy posture. It intimidated a few small countries and antagonized a lot of the West.
With Xi Jinping’s third term, there seemed to be some recognition that this might not be the best mode of statecraft. There were nascent signs that Xi desired a more balanced approach in Chinese foreign policy. Personnel shifts signaled a less bellicose diplomatic style.
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Or, sometimes, your own diplomat says something so galactically stupid that there needs to be some some serious foreign policy clean-up in aisle five. And here we arrive at reporting from the Wall Street Journal’s Stacy Meichtry and Laurence Norman:
France and countries across Eastern Europe condemned remarks by China’s ambassador in Paris claiming that post-Soviet states lack a firm basis for their sovereignty under international law.
Ambassador Lu Shaye made the comments during an interview late Friday on French TV, in which he was asked whether he considered the peninsula of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, part of Ukraine under international law.
“Even these ex-Soviet Union countries do not have effective status, as we say, under international law because there’s no international accord to concretize their status as a sovereign country,” Mr. Lu said.
Mr. Lu’s comments appeared to brush aside the sovereignty of countries, including Russia, that formally recognized each other after the Soviet Union’s dissolution and are represented at the United Nations and in European security organizations. The ambassador’s comments drew a swift reaction in parts of Europe, with the three Baltic states saying they would summon China’s top officials in a coordinated move on Monday for an explanation.
One has to stand back and marvel when an official steps into it this badly. I’ve become so inured to U.S. officials doing it — particularly during the Trump years — that the hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World appreciates the occasional reminder that American diplomats do not have the monopoly on own-goals.
Why is this such a screw-up? Where to begin….
Ambassador Lu’s legal argument is, how to put this, complete horseshit. As Julian Ku notes, China formally recognized all the Soviet successor states back in 1991. China has had embassies in all these countries. This seems like a weird moment to suddenly say “it’s complicated.” Ku goes on to note that if China is blurring the lines between legal and practical sovereignty, that’s a big problem for their Taiwan claims: “China's case for Taiwan is almost completely legal, and has no real practical basis.”
As the WSJ story pointed out, Lu’s comments pose a real problem for the one diplomatic gambit China has attempted since Russia’s invasion: “The Chinese ambassador’s comments appeared to undercut the number one principle in China’s position paper on Ukraine issued in February, which pledges to uphold ‘the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries…big or small.’ When pressed during the interview on French TV to clarify his position, Mr. Lu replied: ‘One shouldn’t keep quibbling over such matters.’”
As the quoted excerpt above noted, even if this comment temporarily sounds like China siding with Russia, over the long term it represents a serious warning to Moscow. Tsarist Russia gobbled up an awful lot of interior Chinese territory during the 19th century. Two two countries had resolved all boundary disputes, but as I noted in Politico, “Chinese students vent in great detail about territorial land grabs by 19th century tsars that have yet to be reversed.” The last thing Russia wants to hear is any Chinese official asserting that Russia’s sovereign status is up for grabs.
China has been trying to woo Europe after the fallout from Russia’s invasion. Macron’s state visit earlier this month was a part of that diplomatic initiative. With this statement, Macron’s already wobbly effort to foster strategic autonomy collapses completely in embarrassing fashion. Politico explains that, “The row comes ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday, where relations with China are on the agenda.” There is no way that meeting produces anything useful for Beijing.
In other words, during a moment when the Global South is trying to hedge between the great powers, this was about the dumbest possible thing a Chinese official could have said.
China has an opportunity to repair some of the damage. If Ambassador Lu walks back his comments, or if China recalls their wolf warrior ambassador, that would be a signal that Beijing can admit error.
If not, then it will be hard to refute those claiming that China has not abandoned wolf warrior diplomacy.