China’s wolf warriors and feminist foreign policy: A German approach
In a new world of strongmen and power politics, German policymakers should look beyond existing feminist foreign policy guidelines to develop a new China policy
Over the next few months, the German government will debut a national security strategy, a China strategy, and guidelines for a feminist foreign policy. This strategic revamp presents a daunting task – especially given that it comes on top of Russia’s war on Ukraine, an energy crisis, and inflation pressures. It is, however, a task worth undertaking. Indeed, in a new global order increasingly defined by system rivalry, the three strategies should represent a welcome readjustment for German foreign policy.
The new national security strategy will provide a framework to define the geopolitical context; the China strategy and the feminist foreign policy guidelines, meanwhile, should make tangible the how and what of Germany’s realignment. In light of this, reconciling the national security and China strategies should be relatively straightforward. But, in a new reality of power politics and strongman rule, feminist principles are under attack across the globe – not least in China. German policymakers may therefore find assimilating the third element much more challenging.
Feminist foreign policy’s Swedish initiators see it as a “working method”, based on the three Rs of rights, representation, and resources. That is, feminist foreign policy promotes equal rights for women and girls globally; aims for more representation, for example, through participation and influence in decision-making; and invests adequate resources in efforts to improve gender equality and opportunities for women and girls at home (in the foreign service, for instance) and abroad. In pursuit of these, Germany could, for instance, work to ensure gender balance in the composition of its government delegations in bilateral conversations.
But the ambition of feminist foreign policy is not only to place gender equality front and centre. It is also to present a broad vision for foreign policy – in line with both national security and China policy – that incorporates feminist principles. This means that values are a fundamental part of Europe’s strategic competition with China. But a policy toward China that advocates equality and human rights will meet with great hostility in Beijing.
Feminism is on the retreat in China. And, not only that, the country’s leadership regards it as a threat to the stability and legitimacy of its rule. Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been reining in dissenting and more liberal forces across politics, economics, and society. Heavy-handed promotion of a national culture that the leadership equates with “manliness” has it banning “sissy men” from television and clamping down on any form of organised feminism, as well as the already-marginalised LGBTQ+ community. The CCP’s broad approach to social control, alongside draconian measures in the name of “zero covid”, has ended even more subtle forms of feminist protest. And violence against women is rampant, as a recent case of abuse in the northern Chinese city Tangshan demonstrated. An increasingly power-dominated society, meanwhile, is militarising externally and internally. As a result, according to the World Economic Forum Gender Gap report, China has sunk in the rankings from a mid-range 63rd spot in 2006 to 102nd of 146 in 2022.
The fact that China is now a global power with accordingly global reach makes this all the more concerning to supporters of a feminist approach to foreign policy. The CCP is promoting a “manly” culture at home, but it is also contributing to the spread of its values far beyond China’s borders. It is doing so by militarising its foreign policy, using coercive economic means to achieve political goals, and supporting repressive ‘strongman’ rule around the world – hence the sobriquet “wolf warrior diplomacy”.
To counter this, it is both possible and necessary to go beyond the three Rs in formulating a non-dogmatic approach to China policy with feminist values at its core. Germany could do so by complementing the Swedish scholars’ three nouns with three verbs: detect, de-escalate, and diversify.
Detect, de-escalate, and diversify
The speed at which geopolitical developments are changing the existing order makes it difficult to keep track of all the different dynamics at play. But there are indicators that can help Europeans detect what is going on – and help inform policymaking.
It matters that the Chinese leadership is becoming more repressive and more militarised. German policymakers need to take seriously China’s growing emphasis on bellicose masculinity and restrictions on women’s and minority rights. These are important indicators that the regime is moving in a worrying direction – and is not a reliable partner. Feminist foreign policy research suggests that when a regime starts to restrict women’s rights and talk ‘tougher’, one should begin to worry about broader aggressive action to follow. Europe discounted and ignored similar developments from the Kremlin for a decade, meaning it was unprepared for Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Europeans should therefore begin to systematically track these indicators to inform policymaking.
Furthermore, although Germany should not ignore China’s increasingly bellicose posturing, but neither should it mirror it. Instead, Berlin should focus on de-escalation. German leaders are ready and willing to engage with genuine grievances from Beijing. But engagement of this kind does not automatically mean cooperation. And it certainly does not mean denial or ignoring the danger signs while continuing to pursue a profitable status quo. Germany is at a stage in its relations with China in which conflict is real and the risk of military escalation in China’s immediate neighbourhood looms large. Closer to home, aggressive cyber-attacks are challenging business and society, and economic coercion has become standard. De-escalation therefore needs to be engaged, clear-sighted, and firm on principle – but not blinkered by a need to ‘win’ for winning’s sake.
On the global stage, Germany needs to work with its partners to offer enticing alternatives to Beijing’s authoritarian surveillance-state model. And it needs to frame this as a competitive alternative, not as a contest for supremacy. Belligerent rhetoric does not tend to gain much ground in German public discourse. So, the country may be well placed to maintain a non-threatening framing for the nonetheless necessary economic and technological competition – perhaps under an umbrella of ‘principled pragmatism’.
When cooperative solutions would be beneficial – such as on climate policy or global health – the door for working together should remain open, but no necessary action should be conditioned by China’s willingness or unwillingness to cooperate. At the same time, Germany should lead an effort not to reform, but to actually redesign, a rules-based international order. It can do so only together with key partners, which support new multilateral codes of conduct (from AI to biotech and autonomous weapons) that are based on principle, not on a zero-sum logic.
A successful China policy for Germany in a feminist foreign policy framework will require creativity and agility. And it will be fundamental to work with a diverse set of partners across a broad set of policy areas. A feminist approach would look at China beyond Xi and security beyond military conflict. It would be archaic to assert that, just because challenges have global implications, China is a partner for Germany on areas such as food security. But, despite the party’s ever tighter authoritarian grip, Chinese partners remain in this area and others. The focus should be on working with them. Instead of high-level exchanges, Germany and Europe should place a renewed emphasis on more technical and small-scale cooperation to strengthen and empower these partners as much as possible under the current conditions.
Finally, a feminist approach takes a broader view of security than just as a matter of conflict (or the absence thereof) between states. For European policymakers, this view can provide a helpful guide for understanding how to compete with the Chinese leadership’s narrative and offers, which are particularly appealing to strongmen around the globe. When Chinese investment projects are environmentally degrading or contribute to repression, this is a security concern. But the answer is not a military one. By providing powerful values-based alternatives, backed by financial heft and pragmatic financing for high-quality infrastructure, digital development, and green energy – as well as mitigation and adaptation measures – Europe can make better rival offers. Germany’s forthcoming national security and China strategy, together with its feminist foreign policy guidelines, could provide the basis for it to take the lead in doing so.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.