China-US relations

China-US talks: Meet the politicians and policymakers behind the presidents

Xi Jinping and Donald Trump will be the star attractions in Beijing on Wednesday, but they won’t be the only ones doing the talking

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 November, 2017, 9:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 November, 2017, 3:18pm

With US President Donald Trump set to arrive in Beijing on Wednesday, observers will be watching closely for any changes to the dynamics of Sino-US relations as China welcomes its first foreign head of state since completing a major leadership reshuffle late last month.

Several of the Chinese officials expected to play a role in the diplomatic and trade talks alongside President Xi Jinping will do so from new, elevated positions announced at the 19th national congress.

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The two leaders appeared to get on well at their first meeting in Florida in April, and Trump has since played up his close personal relationship with Xi. However, he has also been highly critical of China on trade issues and what he sees as Beijing’s lack of commitment to reining in its restive neighbour North Korea.

With the presidents’ meeting now just days away, the South China Morning Post has identified some of the people who are likely to play key roles in Sino-US relations next week and in the years ahead.

Wang Yang: Vice-premier, Politburo Standing Committee member

Elevated to the apex of China’s power structure at the party congress, the vice-premier is expected to remain a central figure in Sino-US trade talks.

One of China’s highest-profile diplomats, Wang represented China every summer during Xi’s first five years in power at the high-level trade talks between Washington and Beijing.

When he attended the US-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue in July, he rebutted claims made by Trump’s administration that China was to blame for the imbalance in bilateral trade and investment relations, and stressed the importance of “win-win cooperation”.

In late September he met US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross in Beijing as a precursor to Trump’s upcoming visit.

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Wilbur Ross: US commerce secretary

The United States Commerce Department announced last month that Ross would lead the 29 business delegations – from mostly energy and commodities firms – set to visit China to “advance the bilateral commercial relationship by promoting business deals between US and Chinese firms, as well as addressing market access barriers faced by US companies”.

The billionaire investor has repeatedly accused China of putting up barriers to trade and even described it as “the most protectionist country”.

On the upcoming trip, he said he was looking for “immediate results” and “tangible agreements”.

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Cui Tiankai: China’s ambassador to the US

As one of its architects from the Chinese side, Cui described Trump’s first official trip to China as a “state visit plus”. Over the course of the three days, Trump would receive a military honour guard, take part in official talks and attend a formal banquet, he said, adding that other “special arrangements” had also been made.

In Xi’s meeting with Trump, one of the top priorities would be the crisis in North Korea, he said.

According to information reported earlier and exclusively by the Post, the 65-year-old, who has been China’s ambassador to the US since 2013, delayed his retirement so he could play a role in the Trump visit.

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Terry Branstad: US ambassador to China

Although he has been in his current role for less than four months, Branstad’s personal ties to Xi could be the deepest of all the US officials set to take part in the upcoming dialogue.

More than 30 years ago, Xi, then a young agriculture officer, met Brandstand for the first time in Iowa, where the now ambassador was the Midwestern state’s governor.

The two men have met three times since: in 2011 and 2013 when Brandstad visited China, and in 2012 when Xi attended an Iowa state dinner as a vice-president.

Yang Jiechi: State Councillor, Politburo member

Yang’s status as China’s top diplomat and a key figure in Sino-US relations was consolidated at last month’s party congress when he was promoted to the 25-member Politburo.

In doing so, he became the first state councillor since former vice-premier and foreign minister Qian Qichen – who retired in the early 2000s – to be elevated to the country’s second-highest decision-making body.

As well as having responsibility for the party’s Foreign Affairs Leading Group, Yang is regarded as an expert on the US, where he served as China’s ambassador from 2001 to 2005.

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At a meeting with Rex Tillerson last month, during his US counterpart’s preparatory visit to China ahead of Trump’s trip, Yang was quoted by Xinhua as saying that China hoped to “handle sensitive matters in a proper way”.

In February, Yang became the first Chinese official to visit the United States under the Trump administration.

Rex Tillerson: US secretary of state

The face of US foreign relations, Tillerson was the last US official to visit China before the arrival of his country’s president.

In laying the groundwork for Trump’s visit, Tillerson said in late September that the top agenda items as far as the US was concerned would be North Korea and bilateral trade.

Last month he said Trump had told him to continue pushing for diplomacy with Pyongyang “until the first bomb drops”.

He has also repeatedly stressed the importance of China’s role in dealing with its restive neighbour.

Zhong Shan: China’s commerce minister

Zhong became a top economic policymaker this year and was one of the Chinese representatives who met Tillerson in September.

He also held follow-up meetings with US trade representatives after Xi and Trump agreed a “100-day plan” to improve bilateral economic ties at their meeting in Mar-a-Lago, Florida in April.

As China’s trade representative, Zhong is expected to play a central role in this week’s meetings.

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Steven Mnuchin: US treasury secretary

As a key policymaker, Mnuchin has led negotiations from Washington’s side as the US and China have sought to establish a bilateral investment treaty.

At the US-China Business Council in Washington in June, he said that the most urgent trade issue was establishing open markets in key areas. He made specific reference to China’s financial services sector, and its information and communications technology markets.

“Once we make progress on that we can turn to the bilateral investment agreement,” Mnuchin said, adding that signing such a treaty was the long-term goal.

Wang Yi: China’s foreign affairs minister

After Xi secured his position as China’s leader for the next five years, Wang was quick to speak out on how it would influence the country’s foreign relations.

“Under the guidelines set out by General Secretary Xi Jinping in the new era, Chinese diplomacy will develop towards having a wider international vision, greater responsibility for the world, and a more proactive role in international relations,” he said at a meeting following Xi’s work report speech at last month’s party congress.

Robert Lighthizer: US trade representative

A long-time critic of China’s trade practices, Lighthizer was tasked by Trump to “fight for good trade deals that put the American worker first”. Since taking the role of lead trade negotiator, he has led an investigation into China’s intellectual property practices and described Beijing’s economic model as an “unprecedented” threat to the trading system.

Lighthizer has advocated a “more aggressive” stance to reduce the US-China trade deficit and to force China to honour its commitments as a member of the World Trade Organisation.

The tough talker served under president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, when he forced Japan to make trade compromises to reduce steel and vehicle imports.