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Wang Qishan

China-US trade war: Vice-President Wang Qishan ‘the firefighter’ might not be sent to front line

Wang is focusing on his job as vice-president but could have an indirect influence on the negotiations, a source says

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 August, 2018, 11:56pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 September, 2018, 11:47am

Wang Qishan is widely considered China’s most powerful vice-president, but the man dubbed “the firefighter” for taking on tough jobs might not have the hands-on role in US trade talks that many observers had expected, according to a source who spoke to Wang recently.

Wang is reputed to be one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s most trusted and important allies. Although he retired from the country’s highest decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, in October, Xi appointed him vice-president in March and made him a member of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, which Xi heads.

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With his reputation as a skilled hand with a wealth of knowledge in trade, finance and China’s relations with the United States, Wang also had extensive contacts with American officials such as former Treasury chief Henry Paulson.

But in a private meeting in Beijing last month, Wang tried to dispel speculation that Xi had tapped him to look after China-US issues.

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According to a source at the meeting, Wang stressed that he was not closely involved in the decision making on US affairs, especially in relation to the escalating trade war.

“I just talked to him recently; he looks fine. And [when asked about the trade war], he said he is just doing his VP job,” the source told the South China Morning Post.

Rather than Wang taking a lead in Xi’s ambitious global agenda, his appointment as vice-president seemed to be more in line with the president’s domestic priorities, the source said.

The source said he understood that Xi was using Wang largely to cement his hold on power.

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“But whether it’s effective or not we still don’t know, and we should not jump to any conclusions yet,” he said.

In the midst of trade talks in May, there was widespread speculation that Wang might visit the US in a last-ditch attempt to find common ground. But the plan appeared to have been shelved after several rounds of unsuccessful talks between Vice-Premier Liu He, Xi’s top economic adviser, and his US counterparts.

However, the opaque nature of Chinese politics means it is unclear if Wang is indeed not closely involved in handling US ties or he is trying to distance himself from worsening Sino-US relations, for which Xi has been under growing pressure.

Analysts said Wang was unlikely to get involved now because of the threat of even more tariffs from Washington, raising the risk of public failure.

“It’s very risky for Wang Qishan to come to Washington because it could be a big failure,” said Robert Sutter, a professor at George Washington University. “He probably knows that. It’s not the right time.”

Cheng Li, a China specialist at the Brookings Institution, agreed.

“Beijing needs to ensure Wang Qishan’s visit is largely a success, but it’s too hard to make any predictions under current circumstances,” Li said. “So they are not in the mood to go ahead with the preparations.”

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In the meantime, Wang has been meeting foreign officials, business representatives and analysts from think tanks. On Tuesday, he met a delegation from El Salvador, which has just switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing, and last month he met Tesla chief Elon Musk and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel during his mission to salvage business deals threatened by the trade war.

Musk said he and Wang discussed “history, philosophy and luck”.

Stapleton Roy, a US ambassador to China in the 1990s, said Wang’s relatively low-key activities in the past few months suggested that his role in China’s diplomatic hierarchy had been overstated.

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“How can he [play a leading role on foreign policy]? He is vice-president, as are his counterparts in other countries who are not power holders,” said Roy, founding director emeritus of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States in Washington.

The Wall Street Journal also reported this month that Wang denied to a group of US business leaders in May that he was in charge of managing ties with the US. Wang said his job as vice-president was to do whatever Xi wanted him to do, according to the report.

Beijing announced on Thursday that Commerce Vice-Minister Wang Shouwen would be sent to the US to try to restart trade talks suspended since late June.

However, another source with knowledge of Sino-US trade talks said Wang could still play an important indirect role in the talks.

The source said Wang had been the leader of China’s strategic dialogue with the US for many years and was close to Xi, and his advice could still influence the president.