Meet the team China expects to unknot ties with the United States

Wang Qishan, Liu He, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi are on Beijing’s diplomatic front line as it tries to reduce frictions with Washington

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 March, 2018, 9:36pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2018, 12:18pm

China has unveiled most of the main players charged with handling the vexed Sino-US ties, with the elevation of Foreign Minister Wang Yi to state councillor at the national legislature’s annual meeting in Beijing on Monday.

Wang’s rise to state councillor – a position not previously held by a serving foreign minister – is among a number of moves expected to raise the profile of diplomats in the nation’s decision-making structure as North Korea, Taiwan and the South China Sea – and the US – loom as more urgent priorities.

It also follows the naming of former anti-graft chief Wang Qishan as a vice-president handling foreign affairs, and Liu He, President Xi Jinping’s most trusted economic adviser, as vice-premier. Liu is expected to manage the country’s financial and economic affairs, a major source of friction with the US.

The changes come after more than a decade of diminished standing for China’s diplomats in the decision-making structure. 

From 1998 until late last year, there were no diplomats in the Communist Party’s powerful Politburo, and state councillor was the most senior rank a diplomat could achieve. 

But in October an overhaul of the system saw former state councillor Yang Jiechi – the country’s top diplomat – given one of the 25 seats on the Politburo. Liu was also named as a Politburo member.

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In the last month or so, the two new Politburo members have each made trips to the US to try to defuse trade tensions, their seniority a rare gesture of eagerness from Beijing to get relations with Washington back on track.

A source familiar with the leadership’s diplomatic strategy said Wang Qishan was expected to focus on China’s relations with the US, with Wang Yi reporting to Yang, and Yang reporting to the vice-president. 

In addition, Wang Qishan will become a member of the Central Leading Group of Foreign Affairs, a party body that oversees international relations.

China Foreign Affairs University professor Su Hao said the elevation of Wang Yi to state councillor also meant higher seniority for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“This will give Wang a higher standing to coordinate and mobilise other departments,” Su said. 

Wang Yi, who has been foreign minister since 2013, is known for his staunch defence of China’s positions in world affairs. 

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He said it was a “strategic misjudgment” for the US to brand China as a rival, and has also warned Washington not to get involved in China’s disputes with other nations over the South China Sea. 

There was no mention of Yang’s specific duties at the National People’s Congress on Monday, but foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said Yang would play a key role in China’s diplomacy as a Politburo member.

Su said he expected Yang would exercise authority over other players in China’s foreign affairs policy, including the commerce ministry and the party’s International Liaison Department, an agency that manages overseas party relations, especially with North Korea.

Su said that as a state body the foreign ministry had “insufficient coordination” with the party’s International Liaison Department, an administrative issue that could be overcome by Yang’s Politburo standing.

The new diplomatic line-up comes amid setbacks in China’s efforts to expand its presence worldwide. Its infrastructure investment projects under Xi’s signature “Belt and Road Initiative” have been seen by many as an attempt by Beijing to lure other nations to its side, undermining the sovereignty of the project recipients.

China’s relations with the US are also on the wane. Despite their seniority, Yang and Liu failed to establish proper points of contacts with US officials, and after their trips the White House demanded publicly that China to reduce its trade surplus with the US by US$100 billion.

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And on Friday, US President Donald Trump signed off a law that encourages US officials to visit Taiwan, triggering protests from Beijing that regards the self-ruled island as a wayward province.

Relations are also complicated by the departure of relative moderates in the White House, including former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson and former economic adviser Gary Cohn, who were replaced by hawkish figures, such as former Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo.

Fudan University international relations professor Pan Rui said managing China’s relations with the US was the top priority for China’s new foreign policy team.

“There are a lot of obstacles facing the Sino-US relations. Managing such ties is the biggest challenge for the new team,” Pan said. 

Su said other big jobs would include China’s relations with its neighbours and their growing suspicions of China’s military deployment in the South China Sea.