Rise of China's new Foreign Minister Wang Yi

Veteran diplomat installed as minister as Beijing selects cabinet to promote China's rise

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 March, 2013, 4:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 07 August, 2015, 4:04pm

Newly-appointed foreign minister Wang Yi has not only established himself as a diplomat who can defuse a crisis, but also as an official able to cope with unusual career moves.

Many observers in Taiwan and on the mainland were surprised in 2008 when Wang, then deputy foreign minister, was appointed head of the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office.

The move, the first time someone with extensive foreign policy experience had been put in charge of Taiwan affairs, triggered concerns in Japan that better communication between the Taiwan Affairs Office and the foreign ministry was aimed at undermining the relationship between Tokyo and Taipei. Wang had previously served as ambassador to Japan.

Some pundits said the move reflected Beijing's increased willingness to accommodate Taiwan's desire for a greater international presence, a complicated issue for Beijing.

Wang, the 59-year-old son-in-law of late leader Zhou Enlai's secretary Qian Jiadong , has now returned to the diplomatic arena with his appointment as foreign minister in the latest government reshuffle.

Pundits say the move reflects Beijing's desire to improve ties with Japan, which have become increasingly tense due to the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu, or Senkaku, islands.

Wang joined the foreign ministry after graduating from university, where studied Japanese, in 1982.

In 1983, Wang wrote the speech given by then Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang on his historic trip to Japan, with the mainland media reporting that Hu only made two changes to the draft. After that, Wang was mainly responsible for Asian affairs, serving as a counsellor in the embassy in Tokyo and head of Asian affairs for the ministry.

He was made deputy foreign minister in 2001, and posted to Tokyo as ambassador between 2004 and 2007.

Wang's job was difficult due to the deterioration in Sino-Japanese ties following then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honours 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including 14 class A war criminals from the second world war.

Wang showed he could deal with difficult issues in a flexible manner and helped ease tensions by arranging for Koizumi's successor, Shinzo Abe, to visit Beijing soon after he became the prime minister in 2006, followed by a reciprocal visit by then premier Wen Jiabao in 2007.

A US diplomatic cable dated June 15, 2006, released by Wikileaks said Wang told then US ambassador to Japan Thomas Scheiffer that China realised it was difficult for Japan to alter its position on Yasukuni in response to Chinese pressure, but that such concerns could be addressed diplomatically and China was willing to negotiate a "soft landing" that would give "face" to Japan.

Wang was also China's representative in the first round of six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme in 2003. The other five parties involved in the talks were the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia and North Korea.

North Korea had wanted bilateral talks, but the US insisted on multilateral ones.

"China advocated that no matter whether it was bilateral or multilateral, it was important for the nations to engage in talks," said Professor Jia Qingguo , an international relations specialist at Peking University.

"Wang is very firm when he talks about China's core interests, but he is very pragmatic and will resort to different ways in dealing with difficult issues. Wang definitely puts a lot of effort into studying the issues facing him, and he can always make the right move at the right time."

In addition to defusing crises, Wang is also known as a diplomat open to new ideas and always willing to engage in discussions with academics.

One scholar who joined in discussions with Wang said he demanded that young Chinese diplomats enhance their theoretical knowledge, and focus more on analysing the long-term impact of foreign policies in their reports.