China’s Wolf Warrior Diplomacy Backfires, Embarrassing IT

The pack of Wolf Warriors is beginning to bite its master. The Chinese leadership must have realized this April that the so-called confrontationist diplomacy it encouraged its foreign service officers and diplomats to practice abroad now poses a veritable danger to its foreign policy.

One of the Warriors, Chinese ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, went to the extent of questioning the sovereignty of former Soviet states such as Ukraine. There was no question of denying the statement because he said it during a TV interview.

These were his words: “Even these ex-Soviet countries don’t have an effective status in international law because there was no international agreement to materialize their status as sovereign countries.” he said.

The statement was China’s, not the diplomat’s undoing, as subsequent events showed. The remark prompted immediate outrage, especially among the Baltic states.

During the interview, the diplomat failed to clearly acknowledge that Crimea, annexed in 2014 by Russia, belongs to Ukraine. These remarks caused an outcry in France and abroad. The statements by the Chinese ambassador were described as “unacceptable” by European foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who stated “the EU can only assume that these statements do not represent the official position of China.”

The ambassador was received at the foreign ministry – a meeting scheduled before the controversy – by the chief of staff, who informed him of the “unacceptable nature” of his statements and reportedly called on him “to confine his public statements to those consistent with the official positions of his country.”

But why the anger over Lu’s comments? Last year, Lithuania allowed a Taiwanese office in its country and allowed it to bear the name Taiwan. An enraged China immediately imposed restrictions on Lithuania’s exports. The European Union stepped in and last December said it has launched legal proceedings against China at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The EU Commission estimated that China cut trade from the Baltic country by 80 per cent this year after Vilnius broke diplomatic custom over Taiwan.

That still rankled and those EU politicians already skeptical of China seized on Lu’s comments. IT appears to have undone all that the recent red-carpet visit to China of French president Emmanuel Macron achieved. If China hoped that its stalled trade deal with EU could get a face lift, the hopes are now gone. China’s relationship with large parts of the EU, which had suffered during the Covid pandemic, now appears to turn sour after China’s attempt to bully Lithuania topped by Lu’s comments.

What authorities in Beijing must be wondering is how could Ambassador Lu commit such a major policy slip-up when China’s official position is directly opposite to what he said. Beijing has never questioned the legitimacy of former Soviet states and has enjoyed relatively good relationships with them for much of the last three decades.

China sought to play down Lu’s comments and iterate its commitment to the former Soviet states. When asked about Lu’s comments on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said, “China respects the status of the former Soviet republics as sovereign countries after the Soviet Union’s dissolution.”

The Chinese Embassy in Paris quietly the online transcript of Lu’s comments and said he spoke in a private capacity. That was the least China could do to limit the damage and everybody knew it.

This is not the first mistake of Lu. The ambassador has a record of aggressive nationalist comments. Last year, Lu referred to the need to subject the Taiwanese public to “reeducation” after a hypothetical Chinese conquest; he also accused “foreign forces” of being behind the mass protests that eventually helped end China’s strict zero-COVID policy. In 2019, while he was ambassador to Canada, Lu accused Canada of “white supremacy” for detaining Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a US extradition request.

Lu wears his Wolf Warrior status on his sleeve. He has assiduously practiced aggressive posturing at public events. It gave him result by boosting his career. He even got the ambassadorship of France. But unlike some instances of wolf warrior diplomacy, Lu’s recent statement did not align with any Chinese goal. That was his undoing.

The Chinese government that encouraged the Wolf Warrior status of its diplomats must be ruing it now. President Xi Jinping is directly responsible for this embarrassing state of affairs. Recently, China had to suffer another backlash when its ambassador to the Philippines implied that Filipino workers in Taiwan might be at risk amid rising tensions.

Recall that in August 2022, a visit to Taiwan by Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi drew strong protests from China, which claims sovereignty over the independent island.

Invited as a guest on LCI news channel, Ambassador Lu took the opportunity to rewrite history: “You have to study history to know more about this Taiwan issue (…) Taiwan has been under Chinese administration since 230 AD, at the time of the Roman Empire in Europe. Well before the emergence of France.”

On another French news channel CNews last year. Lu became controversial for saying that the Uyghurs repressed by the Chinese regime were “not interned” but “in educational and vocational training centers.” “They are trainees,” he had affirmed. These remarks came at a time when the international community’s eyes were on China, as Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, was making a rare visit to Xinjiang. The “Xinjiang Police Files,” published at the same time by a group of international media including Le Monde, documented the oppression suffered by the Uyghur minority and orchestrated by Beijing.

There are many foreign service offices like Lu serving in various countries, causing embarrassment to the Chinese leadership quite often. The Wolf Warrior diplomacy served the Xi government during the Covid pandemic when it thought offence was the best defence against the global propaganda that China was responsible for the Covid virus outbreak.

But today, the pandemic is a thing of the past and China is eager to be part of the international community. Setting aside its belligerent policies, it is now trying to be the interlocutor in various international disputes in West and Central Asia, and would like to play a role in the Ukraine conflict as well. Wolf Warrior outbursts, such as Lu’s, are the last thing China needs at such a time. It has to be seen how it tries to put the genie back in the box.