China just isn't very popular

Who do the "wolf warrior" diplomats think they're convincing?

“There is no power in any other civilization or any other religion that can save humanity; and the future—belongs—to—us!” — Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1908

At the recent U.S.-China talks in Alaska, the Chinese delegation had some harsh things to say:

As diplomatic statements go, this is fiery stuff (the part about Black Americans being “slaughtered” was apparently so incendiary it was cut from the final transcript). But it’s mild stuff compared to China’s rhetoric on Twitter, where “wolf warrior” diplomats attack the U.S. relentlessly.

And even they are a model of restraint compared to Chinese state media people, who unleash zingers like this:

The aggressive rhetoric online is matched by aggressive action, as China sends increasing numbers of ships and planes to harass its maritime neighbors, pushes on its border with India, steps up cyberattacks, etc.

This newfound bellicosity is earning lots of media attention and Twitter followers. But is it helping China’s cause? When I look at the evidence, it seems like the main thing accomplished by China’s new “speak loudly and carry a big stick” approach is that other countries are getting freaked out.


Resistance against China is hardening

2019 and 2020 saw a startling rise in negative opinions of China in developed countries:

Of course, developed countries are very far from being the entire world. Pew had trouble surveying developed countries, thanks to the pandemic. In early 2019, China earned generally positive marks from developing nations, except in Asia:

Of course, that was before the general deterioration in attitudes toward China in the developed world, so this information could be out of date. So let’s take a look at what China’s developing neighbors think about it.

Asia is one of the most important regions in terms of public opinion on China, since it’s China’s own neighborhood. A survey of Southeast Asian elites — policymakers, writers, and businesspeople — at the beginning of this year found rising trust in the U.S. and falling trust in China. 61.5% of respondents said they’d rather align with the U.S., compared to only 38.5% for China — a 7.9% deterioration for China since last year. (Japan was the most popular country.)

In the Philippines, although the Duterte government has tried to realign the country toward China, the public is going in the opposite direction. A July 2020 poll found that Filipinos trust the U.S. by a 42% margin, while China is distrusted by a -36% margin (a 9-point deterioration from the previous year).

Vietnam has long harbored negative sentiments toward China — a 2017 Pew survey found that 92% of Vietnamese people saw China’s power and influence as a threat (80% said it was a “major threat”); 90% said China’s growing military power was a bad thing, and 64% said China’s growing economy was a bad thing. Meanwhile, ties between the U.S. and Vietnam have been warming rapidly.

In Indonesia, a poll in early 2020 found that negative sentiment towards China had nearly doubled from the preceding year.

India, undoubtedly China’s most important developing-country neighbor, has turned even more decisively anti-China. One poll in August 2020 found that 59% of Indians thought India should go to war with China (!!!) over the border dispute. And attitudes were trending down even before Chinese forces killed 20 Indian soldiers last June.

So while China’s government is popular within China, it is extremely unpopular among most of its neighbors, developed and developing alike. The Russians are a big exception, of course (and maybe Pakistan too, though I can’t find a poll). But if China is going to supplant the U.S. at the center of the global order, or even just the regional order in Asia, it’s going to need the approval of countries like India, Japan, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Currently, it just doesn’t have it.

Now, you might wonder if that even matters. In terms of population, China is larger than all of its neighbors except India combined. With almost half of Asia’s total GDP, China has all of its regional rivals easily economically outmatched as well. And with Russia and Pakistan on its side, China would easily militarily outmatch all of its competitors without U.S. involvement.

So maybe China’s leaders have concluded that their country is just so overwhelmingly huge, rich and powerful that they don’t need the favorable opinion of small fry like India, Vietnam, or Indonesia. Perhaps they believe that the only thing that matters is how popular China’s government is in China. Thus, perhaps the “wolf warriors” simply don’t care about how anyone perceives them, and are performing for a jingoistic domestic audience.

But that might be a grave error. Certainly China is at less of a size disadvantage than Germany was when it made its bid to be the master of Europe a century ago. But the U.S., India, and Japan, together with smaller countries, make a force with enough economic, demographic, and military clout that even China should probably sit up and take notice. The Quad (America, India, Japan, and Australia) is quickly becoming the closest thing we’re likely to see to an Asian NATO. That’s entirely a reaction to China. And Japan may now be rousing from pacifist slumber, making plans with the U.S. to defend Taiwan in case of a Chinese invasion:

And China’s neighbors have asymmetric warfare capabilities; they can deploy A2/AD systems against China, much as China deploys them against the U.S.

So while China’s aggro diplomats may have scored some popularity points at home for a government that was already overwhelmingly popular at home, the “speak loudly and wave around a big stick” approach has accelerated and hardened resistance abroad, in ways that seem unnecessarily detrimental to China’s interests.

What about the whataboutism?

But there’s one way China’s aggressive diplomats might further the cause of Chinese power — by increasing pro-China sentiment in the U.S.

The criticisms China’s diplomats leveled against America, both at the Alaska talks and on Twitter, have a grain of truth. The U.S. just had a coup attempt, after the President tried to deny and overturn the results of a free and fair election. That certainly tarnishes U.S. democracy. Our unjustified and destructive invasion of Iraq was just 18 years ago — far more recently than China’s last military adventure (its invasion of Vietnam in 1979). And though I wouldn’t say America is “slaughtering” its Black populace, that rhetoric is no more severe than what half of the center-left liberals on Twitter would say.

Of course, these criticisms are whataboutism; just because the U.S. does bad things doesn’t mean it’s OK for China to throw Uighurs in camps, repress Hong Kong, threaten its neighbors, etc. But whataboutism has moral power; if convinced that America has no moral standing to interfere in Asian affairs, American liberals might decide to join leftists in protesting against U.S. involvement in the region.

So far there’s no sign of that happening — disapproval of China is pretty bipartisan. And the USSR tried a similar tactic, to little avail. But things could change with the rash of racist attacks on Asian Americans. Instead of being yet more whataboutism, these racist attacks allows China to draw an explicit link between U.S. criticism of China and U.S. racism. Chinese state media’s line is that any criticism of China, or attempt to oppose Chinese interests, incites America’s populace to attack Asian Americans.

Of course, empirically speaking, that link is pretty tenuous and unproven. But it’s easy to simply assert it over and over; it makes a kind of intuitive sense, and it’s hard to disprove conclusively, so the idea makes its way into people’s minds whether or not it’s true. A People’s Daily writer’s claim that anti-Asian hate is due to negative news articles about China was retweeted by Brennan Center lawyer Michael Li, and in turn by MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes. These are hardly tankies; they’re simply mainstream liberals who are understandably less worried about geopolitical face-offs in a far-off land than they are about a wave of violent hate targeting their own countrymen.

So this is the U.S.’ achilles heel in the diplomacy wars, I think. There’s simply no arguing against the idea that criticism of China is the cause of anti-Asian hate; even if it’s bullshit, that argument has too much intuitive power. Unless and until America succeeds in suppressing the tide of racist hate, the “wolf warrior” diplomats will be handed free victories in their quest to cut off China’s beleagured neighbors from U.S. aid. Obviously that’s not even close to being the main reason it’s important to suppress a tide of racist hate! But this is where I think the situation is at right now.