Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) cuts a ceremonial ribbon as Chinese ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian (3rd R) looks on during the opening ceremony of the Morodok Techo National Stadium, funded by China's grant aid under its Belt and Road Initiative, in Phnom Penh on 18 December, 2021. (Photo: Lon JADINA / AFP)

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) cuts a ceremonial ribbon as Chinese ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian (3rd R) looks on during the opening ceremony of the Morodok Techo National Stadium, funded by China's grant aid under its Belt and Road Initiative, in Phnom Penh on 18 December, 2021. (Photo: Lon JADINA / AFP)

Polite Wolves: China’s Soft Twitter Diplomacy in Southeast Asia

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China's diplomats have gained fame on Western social media platforms for their strident 'wolf warrior' discourse. But the strategy is not applied uniformly across all countries. In fact, they have taken a more polite tone towards Southeast Asian countries.

In June 2021, leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) convened a meeting to discuss China’s international communication strategy. During the meeting, President Xi Jinping emphasised the need to build a ‘credible, lovable and respectable image of China’. These comments came amidst an all-time high in anti-Chinese sentiment amongst Western countries.

Analysts have argued that China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy was to blame. The term serves as a shorthand to describe the increasingly combative style of Chinese public diplomacy on popular Western social media platforms, most notably Twitter. While banned in China, these platforms have helped it amplify its voice on the global stage.

China’s wolf warrior-style rhetoric is not a communication strategy that is employed equally on all countries. An analysis of textual data extracted from tweets by official Chinese Twitter accounts in 2021 suggests that ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy is not China’s favoured approach when engaging with Southeast Asia. In the region, it seems that the tone of China’s Twitter use has been more in line with Xi Jinping’s description of a softer approach to diplomacy.

The analysis in this article focuses on 11 active accounts held by Chinese diplomats, organisations and state-affiliated media officials. The links to these Twitter accounts, alongside background information about these accounts, are available in the Table below. These 11 accounts are amongst the most followed accounts that actively comment on issues pertaining to Southeast Asia. 

Based on the analysis, a total of 1,424 tweets that explicitly mentioned either a Southeast Asian country, Southeast Asia as a region, or ASEAN between 1 January 2021 and 31 December 2021 were extracted. The word cloud highlights the top 50 most relevant keywords in these tweets.

Two themes are apparent. The first centres on China’s efforts to help Southeast Asian countries fight the pandemic — highlighted by words such as ‘vaccine,’ ‘Sinovac,’ ‘doses,’ ‘donated’ and ‘received’. The second underscores the positive economic relations between China and the region, marked by liberal usage of terms such as ‘cooperation’, ‘friendship’, ‘community’, ‘trade,’ ‘railway’ and ‘development’. These terms often appear in tweets that laud the successes of China’s recent strides in engagement with the region — messaging that is largely in line with China’s framing of economic, investment, and development cooperation as mutually beneficial ‘win-win partnerships’.

China’s cordial Twitter engagement with Southeast Asia is stark when compared to other countries. For example, generating a similar word cloud based on tweets from the same accounts and period, this time mentioning Australia, India, or Japan — Southeast Asia’s neighbours in the Indo-Pacific — a true-to-form ‘wolf warrior’ style of diplomacy becomes apparent.

In the 791 tweets that mentioned Australia, India and Japan, keywords fell under two categories. One conveyed contempt or disapproval: ‘wrong’, ‘irresponsible’ and ‘aggression’. The second group of terms was associated with armed conflict: ‘army’, ‘security’, ‘war’, ‘military’ and ‘troops’. There was also a focus on contentious issues, such as relations with Taiwan and Japan’s nuclear wastewater disposal. Tweets about these issues tend to use hostile language emblematic of ‘wolf warrior’ style diplomacy, as seen in the two illustrative examples embedded below.

While references to contentious issues, such as the South China Sea territorial dispute, are present in tweets mentioning Southeast Asia, discussions tend to refrain from an antagonistic style of engagement, choosing to focus on positive aspects such as ongoing dialogue.

Amongst the 1,431 tweets mentioning Southeast Asia, Chinese officials seem to have completely obscured any underlying tension surrounding the South China Sea issue in their Twitter use. There was not a single tweet that indicated disapproval or criticism about the stances of Southeast Asian countries towards the South China Sea issue. The messaging is straightforward: China has sought to portray the disputed maritime area as a sea of ‘calm’ and that negotiations with ASEAN on a Code of Conduct have shown signs of progress.

In their framing of the issue, they have also sought to push the rhetoric that Southeast Asian countries disagree with the US position on the South China Sea. This is not true: like the US, disputant states such as Vietnam and the Philippines uphold the 2016 arbitral ruling (China does not).

Several of the Chinese tweets have also portrayed the US as an aggressor disrupting regional peace and stability. This parallels China’s narrative in the brick-and-mortar world but is tantamount to putting the cart before the horse. What China perceives to be disruptive — for example, US freedom of navigation operations and multi-national maritime exercises in the area — are supported, albeit quietly, by regional states.

The politeness of Chinese officials in their Twitter engagements with Southeast Asia might be unsurprising given the relatively cordial and stable relations that China has with the region. However, China’s digital diplomacy efforts in Southeast Asia should be viewed alongside the wider context of its broader interests in the region.

If China successfully ensures that it remains in the good books of Southeast Asian countries, it might be able to count on their support in this ongoing Sino-Western rivalry.

Amplifying narratives about the positive role that China plays in the region should also be seen as part of its push to strengthen its ‘discourse power’. In recent years, Beijing has outlined a strategy to propagate notions of a Southeast Asian regional order that is China-centric. This strategy has become more significant in an era of deteriorating relations between China and the West. If China successfully ensures that it remains in the good books of Southeast Asian countries, it might be able to count on their support in this ongoing Sino-Western rivalry.

Whether or not Beijing’s communication strategy is working is a matter of debate. However, on the surface, it seems that Southeast Asia’s public sentiment on China remains lukewarm. Newly released results from ISEAS’ 2022 State of Southeast Asia Survey indicate so – 76.4 per cent of respondents indicated that they were worried about China’s growing regional political and strategic influence and 58.1 per cent of respondents answered that they had little to no confidence in China ‘to do the right thing to contribute to global peace, security and prosperity’.

In this context, the question remains: should China’s genteel diplomacy towards Southeast Asia continue, or even intensify? The jury is out.

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