For years, China’s foreign policy has been dominated by a sometimes uncoordinated mix of leaders within China’s military and its ruling Communist Party. Some had hoped China’s next generation of foreign policy leaders would help strengthen the relatively weak Ministry of Foreign Affairs, providing a central coordinating point internally as well as better access to decision-makers for other countries’ diplomats.
But neither Yang nor Wang has a seat on the party’s powerful Politburo, meaning they, like their predecessors, will continue to be outranked by at least 25 other leaders, who will drive most of the policymaking.
In the most recent demonstration of that dynamic, many within the party say China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, has taken the lead on a task force dealing with a territorial dispute with Japan over a small group of rocky islands that has flared tempers in both countries.
While the foreign policy team of Yang and Wang may not have decision-making authority, the two will be able to exert a still-powerful, though more subtle, form of influence.
When it comes to China’s relationship with others, strategic interests and even hostilities, “their ministry is the one on the front lines gathering the intel these decisions are based on,” said one Chinese expert with strong ties to leaders in the Foreign Ministry. “They are also the main ones meeting with other countries’ diplomats, building trust and representing China’s interests. That can have a great influence in the bigger picture.”
Also expected to be announced in coming days is China’s new ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai — a figure well known to U.S. officials because of his role in recent years as vice minister in charge of North American affairs.
The new team represents a generational shift of sorts, from an older group under President Hu Jintao who were educated before the Cultural Revolution when the system was mostly geared toward China’s relationship with the Soviet Union.
Yang’s predecessor as state councilor, Dai Bingguo, 72, for example, studied Russian in college and spent his early career devoted to Soviet affairs. Dai, who played a pivotal role in China’s foreign policy for many years, also was not a member of the Politburo.
The new generation came of age at a time when China was beginning to open up to the West and adopting a more global perspective.
The new foreign team is also taking over at a time of fraught relations on several fronts. After years of only indirect criticisms about cyberattacks originating from China, U.S. officials have begun taking China to task publicly in the face of mounting proof of what appears to be government-sponsored military and industrial cyber-espionage from China.