Zhao Lijan: China’s diplomatic overtures have been in the news for over a decade. A term called Wolf Warrior diplomacy became especially popular in reference to Chinese foreign policy during Jinping era. The phenomenon is witnessing the rise of a new chapter in its tradition. The Maritime one. In the near future, China is going to reassert itself in territorial disputes over water.
Zhao Lijan transferred
One of China’s prominent diplomats has been allocated a different department. Zhao Lijan, earlier the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, has been moved to The Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs. The man is one of the three deputy directors of the Department. He will now take care of maritime and land boundaries of China, with maritime duties being the primary one.
Zhao Lijan is one of the most famous, or should I say infamous diplomats to ever come out of an opaque Chinese establishment. He is everything which Chinese authoritarians are not known for. The man does not hide his offensive approach and in your face attitude. He is quite combative in the way he deals with problems as well as the media. The man has been particularly critical of western powers, especially the US. He is cited by many as the face of wolf warrior diplomacy.
Zhao Lijan is celebrity in China
Zhao Lijan uses social media like very few in China. He is popular on both Twitter as well as Weibo, China’s own highly censored version of Twitter. Zhao Lijan has 1.9 million followers on twitter, while he follows 171 thousand people on the microblogging site. On Weibo, 8 million Chinese follow him. The Chinese mainly hail him for being the Chinese counter to Trump’s twitter-driven foreign policy.
Sitting in Pakistan, he had rattled then American NSA’s Susan Rice, after which she had termed him as “racist disgrace” in 2019. In August that year, he was elevated as spokesperson of the foreign Ministry. From that post, Zhao Lijan had rattled the Australian Prime Minister by tweeting a photo showcasing an Aussie soldier slitting an Afghani kid’s throat.
Even Americans were not spared as Zhao Lijan pushed the theory that Covid came from the USA. He had once threatened to poke Australia, Canada, the US, Britain and New Zealand. The Chinese have termed him as an internet celebrity diplomat for being ultra-aggressive.
All these incidents did not convey to the press that Zhao’s post may change but the man inside him definitely won’t. Zhao’s shift to Ocean affairs is being termed as demotion since in the recent past, he has been under the scanner. At the same time, his portfolio tells us a whole new story.
Temper in Maritime disputes to rise
According to the website of Zhao’s new department, it handles external boundary matters and cases concerning territories, maps and place names, and engages in diplomatic negotiations on maritime delimitation and joint development. In other words, the combative Zhao Lijan is now in charge of negotiating with neighbouring countries over China’s maritime conflicts with its neighbours.
There is no dearth of countries where Zhao Lijan can utilise his wolf warrior diplomacy. Currently, China is involved in maritime territorial disputes with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam. Territories under dispute involve islands, reefs, banks and other features of the South China Sea. These include the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Scarborough Shoal and various boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin, waters near the Indonesian Natuna Islands.
China desperately wants a hold over the disputed waters of South China Sea for trade purposes. Nearly a third of global maritime trade passes through this region. Controlling the region means possessing the ability to choke global supply chain. In addition to that, the Chinese depend on the South China Sea for nearly 39.5 per cent of total trade. More than 70 per cent of China’s oil import depends on its dominance in the South China Sea.
India needs to be prepared
The problem for China is that its weakness has been exposed in the region. For the last few years, credibility and aggression about Chinese stakes in maritime has gone down considerably. Countries in the region have been approaching India to counter China. India’s support involves a military angle as well.
Jinping has been worried about it. India also holds a formidable stake in the region as 55 per cent of India’s trade with the Indo-Pacific passes through it. Jinping has been looking for a way out. Zhao Lijan seems to be his latest bet. Do not get surprised if countries in maritime disputes with China start asking for more of Indian support in the future. India is their last bet against China’s authoritarian regime.
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