The man behind the Xi-Trump summit

China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, has pulled out all stops to make meeting in Florida happen

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 April, 2017, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 April, 2017, 11:30pm

China’s top diplomat will finally have his moment when President Xi Jinping basks in the limelight of his first sit-down encounter with US counterpart Donald Trump at the lavish Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida next week.

State Councillor Yang Jiechi, Xi’s top foreign policy aide, is widely believed to have played a central role in preparations for the summit, which diplomatic pundits describe as a “blind date” between two alpha males.

According to diplomatic sources in Beijing, Yang, who outranks Foreign Minister Wang Yi, was the key advocate for an early meeting between Xi and Trump, investing “most of his time and energy in recent weeks to make the summit happen”.

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They said Beijing remained “cautiously optimistic” about the summit’s prospects even though the Chinese leadership was deeply suspicious of Trump, whose signature lack of predictability and reliability have been on full display less than three months into his presidency.

Chinese officials, including Yang himself, were taken aback by Trump’s strident China-bashing rhetoric during his campaign and his protocol-breaking phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen after his election, which threw Beijing’s already bumpy ties with Washington into further disarray ahead of his inauguration.

After a stand-off lasting weeks, the two nations managed to stabilise the situation until Trump reaffirmed Washington’s decades-old one-China policy in a phone call with Xi in February.

Despite relations with Trump starting off on the wrong foot, a Chinese diplomat said there had been “signs of positive momentum” recently, referring to Trump’s turnaround on cross-strait relations, his less provocative rhetoric on China, and the selection of a China-friendly politician as ambassador to Beijing.

According to analysts, Chinese diplomats, usually known for being prudent and passive, can become risk-takers when dealing with delicate issues concerning major powers like the United States and that helps explain the rationale behind the summit.

“Beijing sees China-US relations as a complex and fluid process and believes positive momentum should be maintained and kept going,” said Pang Zhongying, a Beijing-based international affairs expert.

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Diplomatic observers are deeply divided about whether it’s the right time for a summit between the leaders of the world’s top two economies, with some voicing concerns about the daunting risks amid simmering tensions over a whole range of trade, security and international flashpoints. They are particularly concerned that a premature meeting might get nowhere, as Trump does not even have his China policy or foreign policy teams in place.

But for Yang and other proponents of the summit, bringing Xi and Trump together under one roof would already be quite an achievement.

“It’s just like a blind date and it is a matter of expectations,” said Gal Luft, co-director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. “The right expectation would be to get to know each other, both sides lay down their opening positions on issues, to get them to understand each other’s concerns, and to find ways and areas where they can work together.

“A lot of the problems between China and the US have no solution really. But they can be managed.”

With less than a week to go before the April 6-7 summit, observers believe the top priority for Yang and his colleagues is to get the Trump team to reassure the Chinese side that it will be a success.

“Xi’s people have obviously calculated that a successful summit would be achievable or they would not have advised Xi to work on the April timetable,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.

Yang, turning 67 next month, is one of the most familiar Chinese faces in Washington. Before becoming a state councillor in 2013, he served as foreign minister for six years. He was also China’s ambassador to the US between 2001 and 2005.

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Unlike some of his predecessors as China’s top diplomat, such as Qian Qichen and Dai Bingguo who were believed to be close to top leaders, Yang is not viewed as part of Xi’s inner circle and might not have the ear of the Chinese leader all the time, according to observers.

For Communist Party officials, especially high-fliers such as Yang, political loyalty to top leaders usually takes precedence over professional competence.

In an article published in January by the party mouthpiece People’s Daily, Yang repeatedly pledged allegiance to Xi and said the “core leader’s” thoughts on diplomacy were “the most precious spiritual resources” in a changing geopolitical landscape.

A successful summit would mean a lot for Yang’s diplomatic legacy ahead of his imminent retirement after the quinquennial party leadership reshuffle later this year, observers note.

But even for a veteran diplomat like Yang, Trump has proven to be a big headache.

Yang almost met his Waterloo in December when he became the first senior Chinese official to meet several of Trump’s top advisers, including Michael Flynn, who later served as Trump’s first national security adviser.

It was supposed to be a fence-mending trip, coming just a week after the then president-elect upended nearly 40 years of US diplomatic protocol over Taiwan by accepting a phone call from the independence-leaning Tsai.

Few details emerged about Yang’s New York trip, around December 9, despite intense public interest.

Observers said the trip did not appear to have gone well, citing the fact that the Foreign Ministry did not confirm it until three days later, after Yang had wrapped up a subsequent visit to Mexico.

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It almost turned into a full-blown diplomatic debacle on December 11 when Trump doubled down on his attacks against China on a slew of issues, from currency concerns to the South China Sea, and bluntly said on Fox News that he would not be bound by Washington’s decades-old one-China policy.

According to diplomatic sources, Beijing was simply too embarrassed to admit that the country’s highest-ranking diplomat had failed to secure a commitment from Trump’s team on self-ruled Taiwan, which China views as a renegade province subject to eventual reunification.

In Beijing, Washington’s recognition of China’s sovereignty over Taiwan is seen as the bedrock of bilateral ties.

Stung by Trump’s questioning of the one-China policy, Xi reportedly refused to talk to the US leader on the phone before Trump reaffirmed it.

It was not until early February, when Yang talked to Flynn over the phone, that Beijing was believed to have been convinced that Trump was ready to adopt a conciliatory tone on the one-China issue.

Trump’s recommitment to the one-China policy during his telephone call with Xi on February 10 apparently inspired Yang and other diplomats to float the idea of the summit, with Yang’s brief meeting with Trump at the White House on February 27 laying the groundwork,

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Despite his soft-spoken, mild-mannered image, observers said Yang represented the hardline camp among China’s career diplomats.

Many veteran China hands in the US viewed Yang’s sudden outburst at a 2010 regional meeting in Hanoi in front of then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Southeast Asian foreign ministers as a watershed moment for China’s global image.

Pointing at his Singaporean counterpart, then foreign minister Yang said: “China is a big country and you’re a small country.”