Sometime in 2020, China came unmoored from its grand strategy. Until then, Beijing’s diplomatic, military, and economic efforts were all directed toward national security. Learned observers could quibble about whether Beijing saw security as inseparable from hegemony; they could debate how productive China’s policies were. But the consistency of purpose underpinning China’s behavior was hard to miss.
Of late, however, China has lost that purposefulness—one of the hallmarks of grand strategy. The predominant feature of Chinese conduct today is not grand strategy but a belligerent, defensive nationalism that lashes out without heed of consequences. Just why that breakdown has occurred is uncertain, but it is clear that the change has put both China and the world in jeopardy. China risks undoing all it has gained—at considerable cost—since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power. And the rest of the world, particularly the United States, finds itself confronted not with the hard task of managing a rising, reasonably predictable power but the infinitely harder job of managing a flailing one.
Grand strategy is the integration of different kinds of power to achieve an overarching objective. How a state defines its objective and how it weaves together diplomacy, military power, and economic policy to pursue it will vary, but certain features are usually clear. First, grand strategies are long-term. The idea is to be safe not just now or tomorrow but a decade or so down the line. Second, they are all-encompassing. Be it Iran or environmental change, the cost of potatoes or military modernization, grand strategies consider these items as they relate to an overarching objective, not in isolation. Third, they have flexibility. The grand strategist is capable of shifting tacks: This particular path isn’t getting me where I want to go; therefore, I must try another way.
In China’s case, a grand strategy has defined the Communist Party’s conduct for most of its time in power. From Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, China has sought to secure the state by weaving together diplomatic, economic, and military power. Diplomatically, the country sought a balance of power that left it, inasmuch as possible, closer to other powers in the world than those powers were to one another. For an insecure country, having friends wherever possible made sense—and that meant continuing to talk even in the face of disagreements. China strove for a productive economy, which served multiple purposes: It allowed for aid to foreign countries that could be friends in times of need, it kept the citizenry on the CCP’s side, and it paid for military modernization.
There were, to be sure, times when the grand strategy led to incomparably foolish policies (the Great Leap Forward) and times when China seemed to forget its purpose (the first two years of the Cultural Revolution or Deng Xiaoping’s war in Vietnam). But for the most part, China did a reasonable job of sticking to a plan. The country’s vision remained forward-looking: A look at Chinese decision-making, whether on the Korean War or the latest military spending, suggested long-term security calculations. There was a sense of connectedness—how one did diplomacy with India affected how one did diplomacy with Pakistan and so on. And finally, there was room to reevaluate when things went awry. The foreign aid of the Mao years was pared back to put China on a more stable fiscal footing under Deng. Xi’s more recent diplomacy with Japan was marked by an extreme escalation of tensions, a realization that things had gone too far, and a subsequent move toward what is now almost cordiality.
A decades-long grand strategy doesn’t die suddenly. Its death is a process, with warning signs along the way. In China’s case, the Xi era has seen the accumulation of somewhat counterproductive policies that catalyzed a breakdown.
Xinjiang was probably the first. Jiang Zemin had championed a policy of living with the religious and ethnic differences that marked that distant territory; it would create the occasional problem, but it was part of what being an empire meant. Xi saw difference as something that could be eradicated, brought under complete control. This meant policies that eventually hardened into genocide. Xinjiang may be under tight control, but the long-term costs, in terms of China’s reputational damage among Muslims abroad and the resentment among China’s faithful at home, however, have yet to be added up.
Then came Hong Kong. Deng seems to have been perfectly sincere about “one country, two systems”; there was no need to bring Hong Kong into synchrony with the rest of China because Hong Kong worked. And Hong Kong working was good for China, a country big enough to contain multiple ways of doing business. For Xi, though, Hong Kong had to look like all of China—and that meant a flurry of attempts to undercut the autonomy that territory had enjoyed. The result was an eminently avoidable surge of anger and protest in Hong Kong, one that shows no sign of abating. It also killed any lingering possibility of convincing Taiwan that union with China was in its long-term interests.
These missteps could still be seen as bad grand strategy. It wasn’t that Xi didn’t want to make Xinjiang as secure as possible or Hong Kong as quiescent so as to keep China secure by weaving in the peripheries more tightly; it was just that he didn’t have the best grasp of how to do so. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to win Taiwan over peacefully; it was just that he thought throwing China’s weight around would terrify those benighted islanders into submission. And in dealing with other matters—relations with Australia or Japan, say, or winning hearts and minds in Africa—his government was doing reasonably well, if not perfectly. His was a more assertive brand of Chinese grand strategy, and the assertiveness had its successes and failures.
But “wolf warrior” diplomacy marks a significant change. The term, viral among those seeking to explain Chinese conduct, is often misused to encompass all forms of Chinese nationalism. But distinctions are important because different types of nationalism are symptoms of different issues in China’s conduct.
Two things set wolf warrior diplomacy apart.
First, there is no obvious point to it. The Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi’s strident performance in Alaska was arguably tin-eared and undeniably excruciating, but there was a purpose. He was trying to save Chinese face after being denounced (however justly); the idea, not exclusive to China, is that one has to demonstrate that one cannot be bullied before getting down to the hard business of resolving—or failing to resolve—differences. Yang was not engaged in wolf warrior diplomacy.
By contrast, it was completely pointless for Foreign Ministry spokespeople Zhao Lijian and Hua Chunying to tweet conspiracy theories about COVID-19 or for China to launch a trade war with Australia simply because the Australians had the gall to call for an investigation of China’s handling of the pandemic. These are knee-jerk reactions, bereft of the cool maneuvering that defines grand strategy.
Second, there is no attempt to rein these fits of temper in. When Jiang encouraged protests against the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia, there were careful directives about nationalism not being allowed to run too far. There is no evidence to suggest that such directives have been issued here. Worse, it seems likely that even if they were issued, they would be difficult to enforce, with purposeless nationalism now run amok.
To be sure, China has always had a nationalistic streak, and it (as in the case of many other countries) has sometimes been counterproductive. Some of China’s diplomatic moves have been clumsy: cutting tourism to South Korea when that country insisted on hosting the U.S.-made THA missile defense system or telling Indian diplomats that those from Arunachal Pradesh didn’t need a visa to visit China because Arunachal Pradesh was Chinese territory.
But seen as a whole, Beijing’s conduct still appeared, for the most part, that of a calculating, purposeful actor. What changed in 2020 was that nationalism for its own sake became the predominant motif of Chinese conduct. From that year on, what stands about China’s diplomacy is spreading wild rumors about COVID-19, getting in a shouting match with Australia, and threatening dire consequences for anyone who opts to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
One hypothesis for China’s abandonment of grand strategy is that it is out to dominate the world, sees an America in decline, and figures that this is a good opportunity to amass more power.
But its behavior doesn’t seem geared toward exploiting U.S. decline; if anything, China has squandered all the advantages it could have won in 2020 as the United States went through utter chaos. Another suggestion is that China now feels it can get away with belligerence because it is stronger. This might be part of the explanation, but it does raise the question of why it would want to fritter away strength on folly.
The most persuasive explanation is that China has poisoned itself through its own rhetoric. In the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, nationalism was seen as a way to get citizens on the same page as the party. It was not really meant to inform practical foreign policy. But as the United States discovered in the Donald Trump years, one cannot stoke nationalistic fires without their eventually blazing beyond control. Over the years, rhetoric about how Taiwanese needed to be made grateful, about the protests in Hong Kong being a product of Western influence, about Western aggression, about Japan never apologizing for World War II, about the righteousness of the party and the infallibility of the Chinese government and the hurt feelings of the Chinese people—all this seeped in and took hold. And it made grand strategy hard to keep alive.
Two caveats are worth noting. First, highlighting the strategic questionability of China’s policies doesn’t mean that Beijing’s fears of the outside world are completely unjustified. The Trump administration aired a deep Sinophobia that has continued into the Biden era. The U.S. defense budget is still heavily focused on countering China; the Quad seems to have been reinvented for the same purpose. It would be irresponsible for Chinese leaders not to take these developments seriously. The problem is not China’s threat assessment. It is rather that the wolf warriors seem to be reacting not out of a dispassionate assessment of that threat and how best to address it but simply out of pique.
Second, buried as it may be, grand strategic thinking is not yet entirely snuffed out. There are still voices that hark back to China’s older style of conducting foreign affairs. Vigorous debate about cutting Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects suggests that there is a segment within China’s policymaking circles focused on assessing pros and cons. With Japan, China has managed to improve relations since 2015. Even the skirmishes with India were the product not of mindless nationalism but of a considered policy that is willing to risk force in securing vulnerable borderlands. All this suggests that there are still calculating heads in Beijing and they might yet prevail.
Both China and the rest of the world should hope they do. For China, the risks of its current drift are immense. It’s not just that the bombast has managed to generate resentment. It’s not even that alienating much of the rest of the world would turn China into a giant version of North Korea. The real danger is that once toxin has spread through the system, there is no knowing where it will end. In China’s own past, similar blindness led to the bloodletting of the Cultural Revolution. If Zhao or Hua can tweet nonsense about outsiders today, it is but a hop, skip, and jump to smearing any measured policymaker tomorrow. Ultimately, that spells death for sound policymaking.
China can step back, but it would take people within the policymaking apparatus deciding that wolf warrior diplomacy has gone too far. They will have to tamp down on blind nationalism in the name of national security. And they will have to commit to a grand strategy and policies that support it. Those could involve easing up in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, declaring that Taiwan is being granted independence, cutting back on BRI, and recognizing any missteps on COVID-19. A tall order, but it would put China on a more stable footing, cut costs, and win friends. Short of all this, even simply backing off the most strident rhetoric, ceasing disinformation campaigns, and easing up on activity in the Taiwan Strait would save money and make it harder for the rest of the world to sustain a hostile posture toward China.
Course corrections are hard, but there are two examples that Chinese leaders might turn to: the attempt to restore national strength in the mid-1800s that Qing statesmen like Li Hongzhang spearheaded and Deng’s attempt to quash the remains of the Cultural Revolution when he came to power. The Qing restoration—seeking to bring technology, modern armaments and military methods, and scientific learning from the West to China—ultimately didn’t go far enough, and the empire crumbled. Deng’s ruthlessness in weeding out those who sympathized with the Cultural Revolution’s worst excesses, however, managed to create an intellectual climate conducive to his “opening and reform.” (It is one of those cruel ironies of Chinese history that Tiananmen Square and the “patriotic education” that followed it also happened on Deng’s watch.)
For the rest of the world, China’s abandonment of grand strategy poses a problem. It is one thing to deal with a power that has a clear goal; one might be at cross-purposes, but at least one knows where matters stand. A power lashing out like a belligerent drunk, however, is more difficult to address. First, the United States will have to distinguish between vital interests where China has to be resisted and ones where letting China do as it pleases would do no harm. There is, for example, genuine reason to resist a Chinese attempt to seize Taiwan. There is less at stake for the United States if China gets bogged down in development projects in places like Pakistan or Kenya. Second, when China does something that is helpful—making vaccines available or doing something constructive on climate change—there is no harm in commending its conduct, instead of vowing to compete (as the United States has taken to doing with the Quad). Finally, when competing, it should be done quietly. Chest-thumping or forceful statements elicit similar responses in Beijing and rarely do much good.
A policy like this will not turn China into a peace-loving democracy. But it would deprive the wolf warriors of attention, which is what they seek in the first place. And it might maximize the chances of reaching a modus vivendi with China while it sorts out its own internal problems.