China’s new foreign team will reflect rising tensions with U.S., Japan

Vivek Prakash/Reuters - Yang Jeichi, China’s current foreign minister and former ambassador to the United States, is expected to be elevated to state councilor, the country’s highest-ranking official on foreign policy.

BEIJING — China has appointed two men to its top foreign policy positions who have devoted their careers to China’s relations with the United States and Japan, reflecting in part the rising tensions with both countries, according to former diplomats and foreign policy experts.

Saturday’s announcement elevated Yang Jiechi — China’s current foreign minister and former ambassador to the United States — to state councilor, the nation’s highest-ranking official on foreign policy, and made Wang Yi, former ambassador to Japan, the new foreign minister.

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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.

China’s relationship with Japan has reached an all-time low in the past year, with some worried the worsening territorial disputes could result in a destabilizing military miscalculation on either side. Likewise, China’s relationship with smaller Southeast Asian countries has suffered as it has pursued a more aggressive posture in territorial claims and in moving to secure energy resources.

Even China’s ties with its longtime ally North Korea have frayed severely in recent months after a nuclear test by Pyongyang over strenuous Chinese objections.

Yang, 62, and Cui, 60, are both well known in U.S. diplomatic circles. Yang served as ambassador to the United States during a period of tension after a midair collision between an American spy plane and Chinese fighter jet in 2001. He was also a host and counterpart to former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton during her visits to China.

Cui, meanwhile, helped negotiate the joint U.S.-China statement during Hu’s last visit to Washington. And he was the point man in last year’s high-stakes crisis negotiation between the United States and China over the fate of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng after he took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Negotiations in that case grew so tense that at one point Cui refused to look at the face of his counterpart, then-Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, saying he no longer wished to talk to him, Obama administration officials have said. Cui has since met repeatedly with Campbell and other U.S. diplomats and said in recent interviews that he has a good relationship with them.

Wang, 59, the incoming foreign minister, is less well known in Western circles. He has spent his career in Asia-focused diplomacy, including as China’s representative to the six-party talks on North Korea. A fluent Japanese speaker, Wang is described by many experts and diplomats as studious and detail-
oriented with a gentle diplomatic touch.

His college education was delayed by the Cultural Revolution, and he did not begin his focus on foreign studies and language until he was 25, said a college classmate and friend, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“To start learning Japanese, not to mention mastering it, at that stage in life took great effort,” the friend said.

Wang rose quickly in the Foreign Ministry ranks and became known for his writing, penning speeches for some leaders during their visits abroad, according to those who knew him early in his career.

Wang Juan contributed to this report.

 
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