New Tail for China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ Diplomats

Chinese president Xi Jinping is gaining a reputation for adapting one of the most famous works of ancient Chinese literature to help legitimize his policies—the Tao-te Ching, commonly attributed to the sixth century BCE sage Laozi. What might the United States learn from President Xi’s use of this philosophical text?

The Tao-te Ching Offers Leaders Guidance on Asserting Force and Appearing to Yield

Understanding how the philosophical concept of Tao—the Way—is interwoven into the historical tapestry of Chinese military and civil strategy can help decisionmakers better assess the strategic long-term implications of the United States’ competitive relationship with China. By drawing upon the teachings of Chinese classics like the Tao-te Ching and I Ching, President Xi “is trying to elevate his policy preference to the level of philosophy, which is the science of all science,” reasons Chen Daoyin, a political scientist at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. Studying Tao and its principles of how to exhaust a greater force can shed light on China’s national strategy under President Xi.

Origins of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy

In recent years President Xi’s directives and Chinese public opinion have set a more aggressive diplomatic tone, reasons Peter Martin. This assertive diplomacy style, dubbed “wolf warrior,” is named after a 2017 patriotic film series. Ultimately, wolf warrior diplomats seek to “defend China’s national interests, often in confrontational ways.”

The Tao-te Ching, however, recommends that leaders enervate an opponent by not engaging them directly (i.e., conserving the strength of one’s forces and moving with “subtle clarity” toward the objective). Specifically, it advises: “The great generals are not warlike. The great warriors do not get angry. Those who are good at defeating enemies do not engage them. Those who are good at managing people lower themselves. It is called the virtue of non-contention.”

President Xi’s summer 2021 announcement that China will transition from its contentious wolf warrior diplomacy to instead “make friends, unite and win over the majority” is an example of applying the non-contention principle in political affairs. Last month, President Xi emphasized this theme in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly by explaining that differences between countries are unavoidable and “need to be handled through dialogue and cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual respect. One country’s success does not have to mean another country’s failure, and the world is big enough to accommodate common development and progress of all countries.”

Virtue of Non-contention

Practicing the virtue of non-contention to win over the majority is also evident in President Xi’s “space dream.” President Xi seeks to accelerate China’s space exploration program and promote cooperation with “relevant countries and international agencies” to conduct lunar research. Similar to to NASA’s Artemis Accords program and Gateway project to advance international cooperation for lunar exploration, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) is also “welcom[ing] other countries around the world that are carrying out international moon base construction programs to join us [China], and make contributions to the cause of enhancing human well-being with space solutions.” By 2030 CNSA plans to construct the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) in partnership with Russia’s Roscosmos Space Agency. In March Roscosmos signed two agreements with CNSA: one to cooperate on establishing a shared lunar research center and another to pursue deep space exploration with the Chang’e-7 mission and Russia’s Luna-Resurs-1 orbital spacecraft mission. France’s National Centre for Space Studies may also join China and Russia in building the ILRS. Overall, forming multilateral space partnerships represents the non-contention principle because it is defending Chinese interests in less confrontational ways.

Although President Xi signaled a departure from wolf warrior diplomacy and preference for the non-contention principle, his remarks on the 100th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were viewed as contradictory by some audiences. In a translation by the New York Times, President Xi vowed to defend China from those who try to bully or oppress it, declaring that the nation would “crack their heads and spill blood on the Great Wall of steel built from the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people.” This may have been in reference to a rather grim Chinese idiom used by Chairman Mao—head breaks, blood flows. The ambiguity surrounding the exact meaning of President Xi’s remarks, coupled with signaling a departure from wolf warrior diplomacy, is also demonstrative of the Tao-te Ching’s concept of asserting force and appearing to yield to it.

Asserting Force and Appearing to Yield

Exhausting the resources and energy of one’s adversary is part of China’s approach to achieving cyberspace superiority over the United States. In 2016, China’s Central Military Commission established the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (SSF) to modernize and consolidate China’s strategic support force to compete with the United States. The SSF Network Systems Department’s main target is the United States, according to the Department of Defense’s 2020 report on Chinese military power, and “Chinese writings suggest cyber operations allow China to manage the escalation of a conflict because cyber attacks are a low-cost deterrent.”

Chapter 30 of the Tao-te Ching advises moderation when engaging an opposing force: “A skillful commander strikes a decisive blow, and stops. He does not dare by continuing his operations to assert and complete his mastery. He will strike the blow, but will be on his guard against being vain or boastful or arrogant in consequence of it.” The logic here is that constantly expending energy to preemptively thwart opponents can only be sustained for so long until performance degrades. The opposite of moderation would be the style of General Heinz Guderian, a pioneer of Blitzkrieg warfare during World War II, who said, “You hit someone with your fist and not with your fingers spread.”

The middle ground between these viewpoints is the U.S. strategy on military cyber operations. The “defend forward” strategy has two core elements: the strategic persistent engagement of adversaries and multilateral cooperation with allies and partners to promote security. Studying Tao to absorb and re-channel “disruptive and destructive effects” may initially appear unpalatable because it runs counter to the philosophy of defend forward. A useful analytic practice in systems thinking, however, is evaluating competing perspectives of a system and separating points and views to identify patterns of thinking. This relates to the Tao-te Ching’s lesson that “those who understand others are intelligent. Those who understand themselves are enlightened.” Ultimately, considering contrasting strategies provides value in identifying one’s own strengths and weaknesses.

Creating Disincentives for Resistance

The Tao-te Ching illuminates how the soft and weak can overcome the tough and strong. Examples of this include China’s use of soft techniques to influence public perception of the CCP globally and enervate an opponent’s will to resist through indirect military engagement. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs shaped public perception of the troubled U.S.-China relationship in July by issuing a series of demands to the Biden administration: “Three Bottom Lines,” the “List of U.S. Wrongdoings that Must Stop,” and the “List of Key Individual Cases that China Has Concerns With.

A related point to China’s strategy is data collection and management. As President Xi explains, “The amount of information controlled has become an important indicator of a nation’s soft power and competitiveness.” Chinese cloud providers such as Huawei are expanding into more foreign markets and establishing data centers, most recently in Mexico and Brazil, “to form a giant triangle of improved coverage and better connectivity in Latin America,” according to Huawei regional president Xiao Fei. To succeed in informational conflict, according to David Shambaugh in China and the World, “Beijing is seeking to export its internal propaganda methods,” such as biaotai (the act of repeating back CCP approved slogans and narratives), to “unify thinking” across domestic and foreign audiences. Part of Beijing’s strategy to project national strength is to “permeate institutions in democratic states that might draw attention or raise obstacles to CCP interests, creating disincentives for any such resistance.”

Creating disincentives for resistance is poetically expressed in Chapter 69 of the Tao-te Ching:

In using the military, there is a saying:
I dare not be the host, but prefer to be the guest
I dare not advance an inch, but prefer to withdraw a foot
This is called marching in formation without formation
Raising arms without arms
Grappling enemies without enemies
Holding weapons without weapons
There is no greater disaster than to underestimate the enemy
Underestimating the enemy almost made me lose my treasures
So when evenly matched armies meet
The side that is compassionate shall win.

China’s interest in exploring technologies for creating disruptive effects is evidenced by its pursuit of directed-energy weapons, like electromagnetic pulse (EMP) technology. An EMP weapon is an energy weapon that can be activated either by a nuclear detonation or a coordinated directed-energy strike. In a July 2021 interview discussing the need to protect China’s national power grid from EMP attacks, a researcher told the South China Morning Post, “The winner is not who attacks first, but who recovers first.” The electrical grid is a particularly attractive target for malign actors to disrupt a nation’s command and control centers and ability to function.

Engineering a Strategic Dialogue

Communication with stakeholders is essential for designing solutions. This holds true for interntional negotiations, as well as in systems engineering when determining stakeholders’ needs, wants, and desires. Dialogue is essential for defending national interests across the spectrum of conflict, and U.S. defense secretary Lloyd Austin has made clear that the United States is “committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with China.” This commitment was reiterated in President Joe Biden’s September 9 phone call with President Xi, according to POLITICO.

As former U.S. defense secretary Ash Carter said, “it is very important to keep dialogue even with potential enemies, so that it is understood where you stand, what your interests are, and what you’re prepared to do to defend them.” A notable example of this signaling behavior was the Biden administration’s formation of the first-ever coalition of nations to globally condemn Chinese intelligence services’ role in the Microsoft Exchange Server breach. The Department of Justice also recently signaled to Beijing that the line had been crossed, yet again, by indicting four Chinese nationals involved in a global cyber espionage campaign. In response to China’s escalating cyber espionage operations against the United States, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is creating a new China Mission Center. According to former CIA director John O. Brennan, China deserves its own mission center because it “has global ambitions and presents the greatest challenge to U.S. interests and to international order.” In addition to these institutional changes, creatively engaging with the Tao-te Ching can also help U.S. decisionmakers reshape a dialogue with China to communicate national interests and expand multilateral efforts to support international partners.

Zhanna Malekos Smith, JD, is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., and an assistant professor in the Department of Systems Engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s) and not that of CSIS, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Zhanna L. Malekos Smith
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Aerospace Security Project, and Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Strategic Technologies Program