The Biden White House, it seems, has gotten its first real taste of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy.
After Blinken mentioned some of the issues Washington had with Beijing, including “cyberattacks on the United States” and “economic coercion toward our allies,” Yang told him that the United States “can’t blame this problem on somebody else” — turning brief opening remarks into a 16-minute tirade.
For a high-level diplomatic meeting, it was remarkably undiplomatic, shattering any illusions of a reset in U.S.-China relations after the more aggressive U.S. policy during the Trump administration. Indeed, China’s diplomats appeared more forceful than they had been in any public meeting during President Trump’s term, leading to worry on both sides about the state of the relationship.
In China’s Communist Party-controlled media, the blame for the rough opening was put squarely on the U.S. “China rarely uses harsh words, but [the] U.S. won’t get its way through blackmailing us,” read the headline on one English-language take from Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, a Communist Party-controlled newspaper.
However, Chinese diplomacy is increasingly defined by harsh words. Over the past few years, the aggressive tone Hu pioneered at Global Times has become the signature at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The term “Wolf Warrior” is a nod to an ultrapatriotic 2015 movie and its popular 2017 sequel. But it came into more popular use as a descriptor in 2019 when a senior Chinese diplomat, Zhao Lijian, took to Twitter to feud with foreign critics. Soon, other Chinese diplomats followed suit, often adopting his pugilistic tone.
Conflict with the Trump administration, particularly over the coronavirus pandemic, amped up the rhetoric. When the Trump White House floated theories about the origins of the virus, for instance, Zhao accused the U.S. military of bringing it to Wuhan.
Zhao’s Twitter antics came to epitomize a broader shift in how China engages with the rest of the world. Last summer, for instance, China’s Wang Yi warned that Czech Senate speaker Milos Vystrcil will “pay a heavy price” for making an official trip to Taiwan — comments seen in Europe as a pointedly direct threat.
Recently, comments from China’s wolf warriors have played up the challenges facing democracies, particularly the United States — and so it was Thursday in Alaska.
In his opening statements Thursday, Yang listed America’s human rights problems, referencing recent Black Lives Matters protests. “On human rights, we hope that the United States will do better on human rights,” he said. “The challenges facing the United States in human rights are deep-seated. They did not just emerge over the past four years, such as Black Lives Matter.”
After Blinken responded to defend the United States and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan commented to say it was not the time for “lectures or long, winding statements,” Yang called reporters back into the room to make a statement to say that it was the United States who had broken diplomatic norms, not China.
“When I entered this room, I should have reminded the U.S. side of paying attention to its tone in our respective opening remarks, but I didn’t,” Yang said. “The Chinese side felt compelled to make this speech because of the tone of the U.S. side.”
“So let me say here, that in front of the Chinese side the United States does not have the qualifications to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength,” Yang continued.
This report has been updated.