This is the latest edition of Morning World, the geopolitics newsletter from Reaction defence editor Mattie Brignal. To receive it free sign up here.

In 2017, Wolf Warrior 2 hit the big screen in China. The high-octane, fiercely nationalistic shoot ’em up follows a retired Chinese soldier fighting tooth and claw for his country’s interests in Africa and defending locals Rambo-style from cigar-chomping American baddies.

The film chimed with President Xi Jinping’s increasingly coercive, combative style of diplomacy on the world stage, and the name stuck. The wolf warrior diplomat was born.

This assertive approach to foreign affairs is a big departure from what came before. In the late 1970s, in the wake of Mao Zedong’s bloody and chaotic cultural revolution, China’s leader Deng Xiaoping adopted a calm and cooperative foreign policy which sought to avoid controversy, focusing instead on economic growth at home. His motto: “Keep a low profile and bide your time.”

Xi changed this. China has opted for incendiary rhetoric and economic intimidation in recent years. Its envoys have stormed out of meetings and insulted foreign leaders.

Now, however, a new guise is emerging – China posing as global peacemaker.  

China in the Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran made the surprise announcement last week that they would restore diplomatic relations and re-open their embassies, in a deal brokered by China.

This is no small feat. The two Gulf rivals are locked in a struggle for supremacy in the Middle East and have fought proxy wars across the region for decades, including in Syria and Yemen.

Both countries severed ties in 2016 when Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia Muslim scholar, triggering protests in Iran with protesters attacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

But even more significant than the deal itself is China’s involvement in a region where the US has long held sway.

After the deal was struck, a triumphant Xi told Beijing’s rubber-stamp parliament that China should “actively participate” in “global governance” and “add more stability and positive energy to world peace”.

It’s a sign that China is attempting to shape the world’s security architecture, as the US has done since the end of the Second World War.

The question is whether shrewd Chinese diplomacy that leaves Washington out in the cold is the shape of things to come. Or will the West respond?

The Ukraine gambit

Next on the list is Ukraine. Xi is thought to be planning virtual talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky after visiting Vladimir Putin in Moscow next week.

It’s part of Beijing’s ambitious gambit to present itself as the only major power capable of resolving the conflict.

China’s claims of neutrality were undermined somewhat by its top diplomat, Wang Yi, waxing lyrical last month about his country’s friendship with Russia.

Yet even as a series of Chinese proposals aimed at de-escalating the conflict were dismissed by Ukraine’s Western allies, they were welcomed by Zelensky, who has said that Ukraine needs Chinese involvement to end the war.

As well as preventing a rout of its Russian ally, Beijing’s attempts to bring peace to Ukraine have a European audience in mind. 

China sees Europe as less Sinophobic and more amenable to deepening trade links than the US. After three years of the disastrous zero-Covid experiment, China’s weakened economy needs foreign investment.

Xi and his posse of diplomats are said to be considering visiting multiple European capitals after the trip to Russia. A charm offensive is in order. China’s wolf warriors will be all smiles. 

Sceptics will say this is more evidence of China trying to split the West, as the US attempts to build a power bloc countering authoritarian regimes. The EU welcomed Chinese diplomacy on Saudi-Iran. The US is much more sceptical. 

Mattie Brignal,
Defence Editor