Lone Wolf Warrior: China Reserves Special Ire for the ROK

By | June 14, 2023 | No Comments

China has seemingly moved away from its so-called wolf-warrior diplomacy, arguably because of the damage it has done to Beijing’s global reputation. When it comes to the PRC’s relationship with the Republic of Korea, however, that line doesn’t seem to apply. According to a recent article in the Hankyoreh, the consensus among experts in Seoul seems to be that the Yoon Suk Yeol government’s position toward Taiwan has prompted Beijing to continue to relate to the ROK – and seemingly the ROK alone – in the spirit of wolf warrior diplomacy. 


They weren’t like that toward the US or Australia, but… China’s aggressive strategy toward Korea alone [1]


Relations between Korea and China have taken a downward turn, with both countries’ diplomatic officials issuing “summons” to the other country’s ambassadors following Chinese ambassador to Korea Xing Haiming’s meeting with Democratic Party Chairman Lee Jae-myung, during which Xing heavily criticized the Yoon Suk Yeol administration. China has shown an unconventional overbearing attitude toward the Yoon administration’s foreign policy of strengthening relations with the United States. China seems to have recently softened its aggressive diplomatic strategy of zhàn láng (戰狼 “wolf warrior diplomacy”) while still taking a hardened position toward Korea. Experts agree that “Unlike the many countries that are searching for ways to improve relations with China, China has adopted an aggressive stance against the ROK, which itself has engaged in a power-to-power strategy.” 

On June 11, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that “Assistant Foreign Minister Nong Rong called ROK Ambassador Chung Jae-ho the day before to ‘set up a time and meet’ (yuē jiàn·約見), proposing talks about the unfair response to Ambassador Xing Haiming’s meeting with opposition party leader Lee Jae-myung, while expressing concern and dissatisfaction.” The Foreign Ministry stated that after Assistant Foreign Minister Nong explained China’s position on Sino-Korean relations to Ambassador Chung Jae-ho, he insisted that “it is Ambassador Xing’s job to interact and engage in exchanges with all types of officials. The goal is to promote understanding and foster cooperation, as well as to safeguard and propel China-Korea relations forward.” In addition, the Assistant Foreign Minister stated that China “hopes that Korea will look back at where the problems in Sino-Korean relations are and deal with them earnestly” in addition to expressing hope that “Korea will abide by the spirit  how the China-Korea Joint Statement establishing diplomatic relations, actively striving for the development of a wholesome and stable bilateral relationship with China.” 

The Chinese diplomatic term “yuē jiàn” means summoning a country’s resident ambassador to lodge a complaint. It is not as strong as the term ‘zhào jiàn’ (召見), yet it corresponds to the word “summons” in Korean diplomatic parlance.

Earlier, according to the ROK Foreign Ministry, First Vice Foreign Minister Jang Ho-jin summoned Ambassador Xing on June 9 and “warned against and expressed strong regret toward thoughtless and provocative words and actions that go against diplomatic norms.” On June 8, Ambassador Xing invited Chairman Lee Jae-myung to the embassy complex, where he warned that “those who bet on China’s defeat will surely be disappointed later”, after which diplomatic officials on both sides exchanged summonses. 

This is not the first time Korea and China have summoned the other country’s ambassadors and engaged in this sort of communicative exchanges. “These tensions (in the Straits of Taiwan) occurred because of the attempts to change the status quo by force, and we together with the international community absolutely oppose such a change,” Yoon said in an interview with Reuters, after which Korea and China both summoned the other country’s ambassadors. President Yoon said “The Taiwan issue is not simply an issue between China and Taiwan but, like the issue of North Korea, it is a global issue.”

Recently, it has been rare for Chinese diplomatic officials to engage in this type of tough talk. China has refrained from “wolf warrior diplomacy” since Xi Jinping took a third term last October. Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng, regarded as being relatively politically moderate, was selected to be ambassador to the United States. The replacement of Zhao Lijian, who became famous for his sharp rebuttals against “anti-China rhetoric”, as foreign ministry spokesperson, demonstrated a break with the past. Lee Sang-man, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, stated that “China’s widespread use of wolf warrior diplomacy didn’t work out, so they seem to be making a course correction.”

However, China has recently taken a hard line toward Korea reminiscent of wolf warrior diplomacy. On May 22 during a visit to Korea, Director-General of the Department of Asian Affairs of the Foreign Ministry Liu Jinsong relayed the so-called “Four Noes” to the ROK government. According to the “Four Noes”, should Korea infringe upon China’s interests toward Taiwan or actively participate in Japanese and U.S. strategy to contain China, it will be difficult for China and Korea to cooperate on issues such as those related to North Korea.

Experts say that the reason behind China’s aggressive attitude toward Korea is because of Korea has taken up a foreign policy track including strengthening ties between the ROK, the US and Japan that places pressure on China,  while repeatedly mentioning issues surrounding Taiwan, which is a core interest for China. Lee Namju, a professor at Sungkonghoe University’s Department of Chinese Studies said that “Even as China’s diplomatic style has changed, there has been no fundamental shift in China’s stance toward core interests such as Taiwan, and there will be no such change going forward” and that “as the Korean government has made statements that irritate China’s key interests, from China’s end, they’re sending a message that ‘For now it’s only at the rhetorical level, but we may respond more forcefully down the line.’”

In reality, even countries that have opposed China have been taking steps aimed at improving relations. Foreign media have widely reported that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit China this week and meet with senior-level officials including Chairman Xi Jinping and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang. Even in light of a dispute that erupted between Australia and China, Don Farrell, Australia’s Minister for Trade and Tourism, visited Beijing – the first such visit in four years – on May 11 and met with China’s Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao where the two sides discussed expanding economic cooperation.

Experts say that pressure from China may henceforth grow stronger. Kim Heungkyu, director of the US-China Policy Institute at Ajou University, says that “The intensity has been growing because only South Korea has been standing on the front line in restricting and pressuring China” and that “Chairman Xi Jinping’s visits to the LG Display factory in Guangzhou as well as other places sent a friendly message to Korea, yet now China will stop making such efforts, and seems to have switched to a strategy of restraining and pressuring Korea.” 


Original article by Shin Hyeong-cheol and Kim Mi-hyang. Translated by Anthony V. Rinna.


[1] They weren’t like that toward the US or Australia, but… China’s aggressive strategy toward Korea alone [미국·호주엔 안 그러면서…중국, 유독 한국에만 강공 전략 ], Hankyoreh, June 11, 2023, https://www.hani.co.kr/arti/politics/politics_general/1095435.html


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.