When a Wolf Warrior Howls

James Palmer

Chinese Diplomat Goes Off Message

This week, China is dealing with the diplomatic fallout from ill-judged comments made by its ambassador to France, Lu Shaye. During a TV interview last Friday, Lu seemed to question the sovereignty of former Soviet states such as Ukraine. “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 remark prompted immediate outrage, especially among the Baltic states.

European politicians already skeptical of China seized on Lu’s comments. Despite French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent red-carpet visit to Beijing, China’s relationship with much of Europe has declined since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—and even more so since Russia invaded Ukraine last year. A stalled trade deal between China and the European Union now appears dead. Beijing’s reputation has especially suffered in Eastern Europe, thanks in part to its attempt to bully Lithuania over its relations with Taiwan.

Yet Lu’s remarks diverge from China’s official position: 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. 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 removed the online transcript of Lu’s comments and said he spoke in a private capacity.

So, how did Lu make such a slip-up? 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 U.S. extradition request.

Lu has openly boasted about his so-called wolf warrior status, and so far the aggressive posturing seems to have boosted his career. After all, he landed the cushy post in France. But unlike some instances of wolf warrior diplomacy, Lu’s recent statement doesn’t align with any Chinese goal. He may have intended to say something more moderate, such as that post-Soviet territorial disputes are not fully resolved.

Russia’s war in Ukraine puts China in an awkward position. Beijing supports Moscow both because of their long-standing near-alliance and shared anti-Western sentiment, while its diplomatic language has stressed sovereignty and self-determination. However, China defines sovereignty on its own terms; its conception has never included Taiwan or Tibet. (It also sees the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a cautionary tale.) It’s possible some Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials see the sovereignty of post-Soviet states as not fully determined—an idea that Lu could have repeated.

Ultimately, leaders in Beijing—and particularly Chinese President Xi Jinping—remain responsible for appointing figures such as Lu to key positions. (Last week, China faced backlash after its ambassador to the Philippines implied that Filipino workers in Taiwan might be at risk amid rising tensions.) Although the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs seemed to disavow Lu’s statement, it hasn’t apologized—and it almost never does to foreigners.

Beijing may be institutionally incapable of fully walking back the comments since it could be seen as humiliating and would likely require approval from the very top. That’s a big problem when the government is sending wolf warriors such as Lu out to howl.

(Source: Foreign Policy)