Moon. CREDIT: Greg Hewgill.

CREDIT: Greg Hewgill. (CC)

Oct 3, 2023 Article

Howling at the Moon? China’s Wolf Warrior Transition in Space

The wolf warrior archetype refers to a confrontational Chinese diplomacy style that originates from the film series Wolf Warrior. So-called wolf warrior diplomats seek to aggressively defend China’s national interests. Why? As Bloomberg reporter Peter Martin hypothesizes in his book China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, Chinese diplomats adopted this approach “because they are unable to extricate themselves from the constraints of a secretive, paranoid, political system which rewards unquestioning loyalty and ideological conviction.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that China would transition from this coercive diplomacy style to instead, “make friends, unite and win over the majority.” Beijing is recasting its image on the world stage as an “international peacemaker,” writes University of East London’s Professor Tom Harper, by forging partnerships with select states, and simultaneously leveraging soft power instruments to undermine, frustrate, and delegitimize its competitors.

Despite this signaling, Xi’s remarks on the 100th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2021 were viewed by some audiences as contradictory. In a translation by The New York Times, the Chinese leader vowed to defend his country 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.” Following the CCP Congress last October, however, which helped cement Xi’s position, Beijing is attempting to soften its relations with the West, and to a lesser extent with Japan, notes Harper. For instance, in January 2023, Beijing replaced its foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, who was described as the “unofficial poster-child for wolf warrior diplomacy” according to NPR.

Outside observers are also noticing a shift in Chinese space diplomacy efforts.

Xi’s “Space Dream” for China

In 2022, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) completed its first orbital space station, the Tiangong. With this achievement, the Tiangong—meaning “Heavenly Palace”—joins the International Space Station (ISS), as the second space station to operate in low-Earth-orbit (LEO). Based on the Department of Defense’s annual report to Congress on China’s military and security developments, China’s space program is rapidly developing and is “second only to the United States in terms of the number of operational satellites.” It’s clear that as President Xi’s reign enters its second decade, he is accelerating the development of China’s space program as part of his “space dream.”

By 2030, CNSA plans to construct the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) in partnership with Russia’s Roscosmos Space Agency. China is also especially focused on building partnerships in Latin America and the Caribbean, in its quest to be the leader in near Earth space exploration. Part of this effort is focused on promoting cooperation with “relevant countries and international agencies” to conduct lunar research. Presently, China has bilateral space relations with Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and, most notably, Venezuela. On September 13, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced that a “new era” of strategic collaboration between China and Venezuela for space exploration had begun. The South American nation will send its first man or woman to the moon in a Chinese spacecraft, and “very soon, Venezuelan youth will come to prepare as astronauts, here in Chinese schools,” said President Maduro during his state visit to Beijing.

International Cooperation and Conflict for Lunar Exploration

China is not alone in building international space partnerships. The United States is spearheading the Artemis Accords, a NASA-led multilateral coalition framework. With 28 signatory states—and the most recent additions from Latin America—the Artemis Accords are a series of non-binding principles for advancing a safe, peaceful, and prosperous future of space exploration for all humanity, with a goal of an American-led visit to the Moon by 2025.

Like NASA, the CNSA has stated that it is “welcom[ing] other countries around the world that are carrying out international moon base construction programs to join [China], and make contributions to the cause of enhancing human well-being with space solutions.” The United States is unlikely to be a party to this, however, because the 2011 Wolf Amendment limits U.S. federal agencies, like NASA, from working with Chinese state entities on civil space exploration. Therefore, as China forms partnerships, particularly within Latin America in its effort to build the ILRS, this could create a curious scenario where a country may choose to be a signatory party to both the Artemis Accords and China’s ILRS.

Such measures could produce a splintered system that inhibits diplomatic discussions around international lunar exploration and responsible state behavior. It could also undermine the leadership influence of the United States in this domain. According to the 2023 Annual Threat Assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, China’s space activities are indeed “designed to advance its global standing and strengthen its attempts to erode U.S. influence across military, technological, economic, and diplomatic spheres.”

"Against this backdrop of great power competition for lunar exploration, maintaining an open dialogue is even more important to reduce the risk of conflict escalation in outer space."

Maintaining Dialogue is an Ethical Imperative

Against this backdrop of great power competition for lunar exploration, maintaining an open dialogue is even more important to reduce the risk of conflict escalation in outer space. As former U.S. defense secretary Ash Carter pointed out, “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.”

Whether it's wolf warrior diplomacy, or two sides howling at the moon, keeping lines of communication open is an ethical imperative to mitigate misunderstanding between parties on defending national interests.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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