Wang Qishan

First stop, Russia: why China’s new foreign policy supremo Wang Qishan is looking to Moscow

Beijing is seeking to balance the risks in its relationship with Washington, observers say

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 May, 2018, 9:54pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2018, 1:31pm

Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan heads to Russia this week on his maiden overseas trip since assuming his new foreign policy role, with Beijing looking to hedge bets as it tussles with Washington over trade and geopolitics.

According to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wang, the former Communist Party anti-graft tsar and one of President Xi Jinping’s most trusted allies, will attend the annual St Petersburg International Economic Forum, which starts on Thursday, and visit Belarus.

Observers said the six-day trip, Wang’s international debut as vice-president, was of geopolitical importance, with Beijing and Moscow seeking closer ties to hedge against US President Donald Trump’s unconventional and aggressive approach on trade and global affairs.

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Wang’s trip comes ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s scheduled attendance of the annual summit of the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Qingdao and an official visit to China next month.

It also comes just days after Wang made his first appearance last week at the inaugural meeting of the top decision-making Central Foreign Affairs Commission, headed by Xi himself.

Wang, who defied party convention to assume the vice-presidency in March, is widely believed to have a prominent role to play in Xi’s ambitious global strategy for the country.

There has been speculation that Wang may be given the job of dealing with China’s complex love-hate relationship with the United States, with his first trip to Washington planned in late June or July.

Li Xing, a Russia expert at Beijing Normal University, said this week’s trip would yet again confirm that Wang, a seasoned troubleshooter in economic and diplomatic affairs, might continue to be a heavy-lifter in China’s foreign relations.

Pang Zhongying, a Beijing-based international affairs expert, said it was no coincidence that Beijing chose Russia as Wang’s first foreign stop. In another highly symbolic move, Xi chose Russia as his first overseas destination in 2013 just months after taking power.

“It will not only showcase Wang’s unique, important role in China’s foreign policy in Xi’s era, but also highlight the importance of Sino-Russian relations in Xi’s overall global diplomacy in the midst of growing uncertainties and rivalry with Washington,” Pang said.

Trade tensions between China and the US have eased since the weekend when Vice-Premier Liu He wrapped up a trip to Washington with a pledge to substantially increase agricultural and energy imports to help narrow a record bilateral trade gap.

“But the structural problems with the US and Trump’s repeated threats of an all-out trade war remain unsolved, and the prospects for US-China relations look rather grim,” Pang said.

Li agreed, saying Beijing and Washington were strategic competitors with differences that went beyond specific bilateral issues.

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He said China wanted to hedge against potential risks and secure Xi’s goal of putting China on the world’s centre-stage. “Against such a backdrop, it is easy to understand why China wants to develop better ties with major powers, especially Russia,” Li said.

Tensions with the US and other Western countries have driven Beijing’s push in recent years for closer ties with Moscow, which has largely been isolated internationally over its military intervention in Ukraine and Syria.

Xi and Putin, who will also attend the St Petersburg event, have maintained frequent exchanges, including mutual visits within weeks last year.

But observers also cautioned that Beijing, which might not see eye to eye with Moscow on many geopolitical issues, should be careful not to be seen as siding too closely with Russia.

“Wang, a party veteran with global vision and diplomatic skills, will use the trip to try to align with Putin on important issues such as North Korea, the Iran nuclear deal as well as their relations with the US,” Pang said.

“But China must be aware that getting too close to Russia may stoke concerns in the West and alienate many Western countries. At the end of the day, a declining Russia is not the ultimate solution for China to counterbalance the US and its allies.”