Coercive Diplomacy: China's Aggressive Bargaining Technique

Updated: Mar 29

Policy Brief by Claire Borgaonkar. This piece is part of Kroeger Policy Review's third issue on Canada-China relations. The full issue is available here.

Introduction


October 13th 2020 marked the 50 year anniversary of Canada-China formal diplomatic relations [1]. But Canada’s relationship with the rising power in recent years has not been cause for much celebration.


On December 1st, 2018, officials at Vancouver airport arrested Meng Wanzhou – the chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei – on charges of fraud against the U.S. [2]. The arrest was not well received by the communist state, and just days later on December 10th, Chinese officials detained Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on counts of espionage, despite being unable to produce any substantive evidence against them [3]. Many Canadians have interpreted the arrest of the two Michaels as a retaliatory move by the Chinese government to persuade Canada to release Meng. This sort of behavior is not uncommon of the Chinese government, and is characteristic of a negotiation style that has come to be known as “coercive diplomacy”.


An understanding of coercive diplomacy is key to understanding the complex nature of the Canada-China relationship. As a vital trading partner and rising power in the international arena, it is increasingly important that Canada maintain favourable relations with China. But what exactly does China’s coercive diplomacy entail? And what should Canada’s response be?


What is Coercive Diplomacy?


“Coercive diplomacy”, sometimes referred to within China as “wolf warrior diplomacy” [4], describes a defensive diplomatic style in which a state pursues its interests by use of threats [5]. To force compliance, the coercive state issues a demand of the target state and subsequently threatens them with trade sanctions, force, tourism restrictions, or a number of other variables if these demands are not met.


China’s adoption of this tactic signifies a major shift in the Chinese diplomatic tradition from relative passivity to greater aggression [6]. Its increased popularity can be attributed to a number of factors, including soaring nationalism and a desire to “tell the China story” free of bias from Western media [7]. The nation has levelled this approach against a number of countries over the past decade – a study from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute documented 152 instances of coercive diplomacy enacted by China against numerous states between 2010 and 2020, with Canada accounting for 10 of those cases [8].


In addition to the “two Michaels” dispute, several other actions by the Chinese government exemplify its coercive diplomatic style. Just recently, China’s ambassador to Canada issued a grave warning to the Canadian government against granting asylum to residents fleeing Hong Kong amid ongoing violent protests, suggesting that the wellbeing of the roughly 300 000 Canadian passport holders living in Hong Kong may be put into question if it did [9]. The nation has also cautioned the Canadian government against condemning China’s ethnic cleansing of Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang province, promising a “strong reaction” if it speaks out against this abuse of human rights [10]. While it is unclear whether or not China would ever actually act on these threats, their declaration is, in any case, a clear attempt to force the Canadian government into compliance.


How Can Canada Respond?


From the start of this diplomatic debacle, Trudeau has condemned the Chinese government’s coercive actions. He stated in an October press conference that Canada is “absolutely committed” to standing alongside its allies against China’s use of coercive diplomatic tactics [11]. He has also noted that the Canadian government will not give into the communist state’s demands, noting that such concessions would ultimately serve to harm Canada and its future interests [12].


As far as actions go, Canada’s arsenal of tools against China is somewhat limited. Some have called for a more hard-lined response to the state’s coercive tactics. Following the Chinese ambassador’s comments regarding Canadian citizens in Hong Kong, Conservative Opposition leader Erin O’Toole called for the ambassador to formally apologize for his statement or else be removed by the Prime Minister [13]. Such forward responses come with risks, though, as China could equally respond with the expulsion of Canada’s ambassador to China or a number of other assertive actions.

Canada may be best off to engage in collaboration with other governments internationally to subvert China’s coercive diplomacy. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute recommends countries coordinate a joint pushback against China through forums like the G7 and the European Union, as well as through the creation of new multilateral coalitions [14]. Countries could also coordinate collective economic security measures and make strides to increase global awareness of coercive diplomacy in general [15].


In any case, Canada must consider its responses to Chinese coercive diplomacy carefully and thoroughly. The Canada-China relationship represents a significant economic opportunity, and while Canada ought to do all it can to preserve it, it must also not allow the Chinese government to bully it into submission.

  1. 50th anniversary of Canada-China diplomatic relations”, Government of Canada, 13 October 2020, https://www.canada.ca/en/global-affairs/news/2020/10/50th-anniversary-of-canada-china-diplomatic relations.html

  2. Moira Warburton, “Here are the key events in Meng Wanzhou’s extradition case”, Global News, 27 May 2020, https://globalnews.ca/news/6991859/huawei-wanzhou-extradition-timeline

  3. Peter Humphrey, “The Cruel Fate of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China”, The Diplomat, 10 December 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/12/the-cruel-fate-of-michael-kovrig-and-michael-spavor-in china/

  4. Zhiqun Zhu, “Interpreting China’s ‘Wolf-Warrior Diplomacy’”, The Diplomat, 15 May 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/05/interpreting-chinas-wolf-warrior-diplomacy/

  5. Ilario Schettino, “Is Coercive Diplomacy a Viable Means to Achieve Political Objectives?”, E-International Relations, 29 June 2009, https://www.e-ir.info/2009/06/29/is-coercive-diplomacy-a-viable-means-to achieve-political-objectives

  6. Zhiqun Zhu, “Interpreting China’s ‘Wolf-Warrior Diplomacy’”, The Diplomat, 15 May 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/05/interpreting-chinas-wolf-warrior-diplomacy/

  7. Ibid.

  8. Tracy Beattie, Emilia Currey, and Fergus Hanson, “The Chinese Communist Party’s coercive diplomacy”, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, August 2020, https://www.aspi.org.au/report/chinese communist-partys-coercive-diplomacy

  9. Ibid.

  10. Steven Chase and Robert Fife, “Chinese envoy overstepped with threat to Canadians in Hong Kong, Freeland says”, The Globe and Mail, 19 October 2020, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article chinese-envoy-overstepped-with-threat-to-canadians-in-hong-kong/

  11. Steven Chase and Robert Fife, “Trudeau vows to stand up to China’s ‘coercive diplomacy’”, The Globe and Mail, 13 October 2020, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-trudeau-vows-to-stand-up-to chinas-coercive-diplomacy/

  12. Trudeau says Canada will not bow to China’s ‘coercive diplomacy’”, The National Post, 11 November 2020, https://nationalpost.com/pmn/news-pmn/crime-pmn/trudeau-says-canada-will-not-bow-to-chinas coercive-diplomacy

  13. Tonda MacCharles, “Erin O’Toole wants China’s ambassador to Canada to publicly apologize to Canadians, or be kicked out”, The Toronto Star, 16 October 2020, https://www.thestar.com/politics/federal/2020/10/16/erin-otoole-wants-chinas-ambassador-to-canada-to publicly-apologize-to-canadians-or-be-kicked-out.html

  14. Tracy Beattie, Emilia Currey, and Fergus Hanson, “The Chinese Communist Party’s coercive diplomacy”, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, August 2020, 25, https://www.aspi.org.au/report/chinese communist-partys-coercive-diplomacy

  15. Ibid.