As Beijing quietly hosted senior officials from Iran and Saudi Arabia for breakthrough talks earlier this month, China’s special envoy for the Middle East affairs, Zhai Jun, was already on his next mission. Zhai was back in the Middle East criss-crossing the region to push for a jump-start of the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians . Meanwhile, Yue Xiaoyong was in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, for a regular meeting with his Central Asian counterparts to discuss ways to resolve conflict in Afghanistan. To the southeast, Qian Bo was on a tour of the Pacific, meeting leaders and senior officials in the Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. All three diplomats are among more than a dozen special envoys that Beijing has appointed in recent years to tackle specific problems or issues – Yue for Afghan affairs and Qian for the Pacific Islands. Analysts say the approach allows Beijing to target its diplomatic efforts, and more envoys should be deployed as China tries to offset pressure from the US-led West. Since naming its first to the Middle East in 2002, Beijing has appointed at least 18 special envoys, including 15 since 2013, according to calculations by the Post. Also known as special representatives or negotiators, these career diplomats, some of whom are even above retirement age, are tasked with missions to mediate issues and regions of particular interest or concern, from Afghanistan to the Korean peninsula and Syria. In recent years, Beijing has also appointed special envoys to foster China’s ties with Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, the Arab League, Europe, the Horn of Africa and Eurasia. Often shuttling around the world, these special envoys can meet foreign counterparts, officials from international institutions, think tanks and non-government organisations, leading China’s efforts to prevent, manage or resolve conflicts while coordinating international endeavours on specific issues, such as Arctic affairs and climate change According to Cui Xiaotao, an assistant research fellow at the department for international and strategic studies at the China Institute of International Studies, these are all issues and areas where China’s political, security and economic interests are at stake. Unlike ambassadors, special envoys usually focus on long-term efforts on specific international hotspot issues, according to Cui. He said they were more flexible and usually signalled a country’s diplomatic priorities. “As China’s openness to the outside world and its integration with the world deepen, China’s interests in the world are also expanding and extending,” Cui wrote in a report on the institute’s website in 2020. “Numerous international hotspot issues directly or indirectly affect China’s economic, political and security interests, making it difficult for China to shy away from them.” US and other Western nations wary of Xi’s trip to Moscow Special envoys have played a particularly important role in improving China’s relations within the region, a top priority as the country faces bitter confrontation from the United States, according to Wang Jian, director of the Institute of International Relations at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Over the past decade, envoys have facilitated – and sometimes taken part in – the formal and informal – negotiations on critical issues such as over ethnic conflicts in Myanmar, North Korea’s nuclear issues and the internal peace process in Afghanistan. “More special envoys for regional affairs can be set up according to different issues, so that they can come and go frequently and strengthen communication, which is also in China’s interest,” Wang said. But being a special envoy is not an easy task, especially when Beijing’s expanding influence, from Central Europe to Africa to South Pacific, comes under greater scrutiny. Last spring, China’s special envoy to central and eastern Europe, Huo Yuzhen, visited six countries in the region to try to revive the “17+1” cooperation platform China launched in 2012. The forum had been on life support since Lithuania’s departure from the group in 2021 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine . But Huo was denied a meeting with the Polish foreign ministry, a snub that would not have been meted out to an ambassador. And earlier this month, just days after what Beijing called “a successful visit” to Micronesia, David Panuelo, the outgoing president, accused Qian, the Chinese special envoy, of deploying a state agent to follow him during the Pacific Islands Forum Special Leaders Meeting.