Sweden and China: Once Bitten, Twice Shy

At the Munich Security Conference in February, Wang Yi, China’s highest-ranking diplomat and member of the Politburo, stated that China should not be perceived as a rival but rather as a partner of Europe. The EU, however, designated China a “systemic rival” in 2019. In January this year, Sweden assumed the presidency of the European Council, tasked with coordinating policy vis-à-vis China. The Scandinavian country is looking back on several turbulent years in its bilateral relations with Beijing and the current Swedish government is expected to take a more assertive position towards China.

Beijing, for its part, is attempting to improve relations with Europe. Sweden, however, will constitute a hard sell on a more benign image. Despite signs that there has been a shift in China’s diplomatic approach in Sweden, the country’s experience with “wolf warrior” diplomacy has impacted bilateral relations and is likely to constrain perceptions of China going forward.   

Swing of the Rival-Partner Pendulum   

Sweden and China are both looking back on several years of significant bilateral tension. The arrest and conviction of Swedish citizen Gui Minhai in China, the airing of a satirical episode of a Swedish TV-show aimed at Chinese people, and the Swedish government’s decision to restrict Chinese telecommunications company Huawei from participating in building Sweden’s 5G network, among others, contributed significantly to the growing friction between the two countries. The aforementioned events took place during the tenure of China’s former Ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, who exacerbated tensions as the relations grew increasingly strained. Ambassador Gui cultivated a strong reputation for what has become known as “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Because of an oftentimes abrasive and adversarial approach, the ambassador was regularly summoned for talks at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs amidst calls from Swedish journalists and members of parliament to declare him persona non grata.    

However, this is not necessarily to say that Beijing’s approach was unsuccessful in Sweden under Gui Congyou. Several developments during Gui’s tenure were likely viewed favorably in Beijing. Expanded trade ties, including the 2018 Geely purchase of 15 percent of Volvo, is one example. Another example is the directive of referring to Taiwan as a province of China that was implemented throughout the administration of Swedish government agencies. However, China’s often adversarial and heavy-handed approach in Sweden also correlates with a sharp rise in the Swedish public’s negative view of China, currently among the most negative in the world.

For Stockholm, a perception of China as a future rival rather than a partner became evident as the government decided to restrict Huawei’s participation in building Sweden’s 5G network motivated by security concerns. Despite initial gains, “wolf warrior” diplomacy damaged China’s image in the long run. By framing China’s message in adversarial terms, Beijing has instead contributed to the perception of China as a rival in Europe. A development that may have begun to clash with China’s hopes for a multipolar world order.   

Retreat of the Wolf Warriors?  

Several factors and misconceptions allowed for Gui to transcend Chinese foreign policy and become a “wolf warrior”. A psychological bias towards perceiving the Chinese foreign service in terms of European cultural norms instead of having different hierarchical dynamics may have played a part. The focus on the supposed autonomous behavior of “wolf warrior” diplomats may also speak to a view of Xi Jinping as continuously lodged in a Sisyphean task of struggle for control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its ministries. In turn, the perspective where diplomats merely implement policy and follow instructions gave way to another where they take risks with China’s reputation to catch attention. In addition, these perspectives are likely influenced by American discourse on China. A discourse that is grounded in a bipartisan perception of China and Xi Jinping as an adversary. Together, these perspectives have contributed to the creation of a global phenomenon of “wolf warrior” diplomacy that constrain expectations regarding Chinese foreign policy going forward. This phenomenon allows for the impression of individual “wolf warriors” to linger past their actual relevance.  

As was the case with his predecessor, the current Chinese Ambassador to Sweden, Cui Aimin, has also demonstrated having a problematic view of Swedish democracy. This could be gleaned when Cui implied that it would fall upon the ruling government to moderate members of Swedish parliament regarding Taiwan. Such remarks speak to the continuous existence of “red lines” in Chinese foreign policy. As such, if prompted by Beijing, China’s Ambassador in Sweden can still be relied upon to defend China’s core interests. However, what has changed in Sweden is the adoption, or perhaps the return to, a more carefully weighed approach in diplomatic matters. This is clearly evident as there has been a shift from an adversarial and confrontational approach towards a lower profile and a more pragmatic approach. Where Gui Congyou saw opportunities for confrontation, Cui Aimin has instead attempted to tread more carefully and emphasized areas of possible cooperation. His attempts for communication, however, have still been perceived in terms of threats.     

In implementing China’s foreign policy, Chinese diplomats have assisted in creating a narrative that may be hard for Beijing to shed, as “wolf warrior” diplomacy has grown into a phenomenon. More importantly, in a rivalry with the U.S. they may not be allowed to. However, such a narrative could not have been created without contentious behavior by Chinese diplomats to begin with. Robert Jervis wrote that “a person who has been bitten by a snake will be predisposed to see ambiguous figures as snakes” in his seminal Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Sweden’s relations with China have likely been impacted in a similar fashion by way of its experience with Gui Congyou.

In this context, China currently faces a formidable challenge in attempting to convince European countries like Sweden that it can be a partner rather than a rival. As to whether China is shifting away from “wolf warrior” diplomacy or not, Sweden constitutes an example of where a shift in China’s approach has taken place. However, in promoting efforts for cooperation, China’s ambassador is simultaneously reminding the Swedish public and decision-makers of past events. Through its experience with Gui Congyou, Sweden is primed to perceive a wolf, even in sheep’s clothing.