WASHINGTON: China’s choice to re-appoint top diplomat Wang Yi as foreign minister just one month after erstwhile rising star Qin Gang vanished from public view means that Washington will be dealing with a familiar face in its efforts to maintain relations with its primary strategic foe.
However, Wang’s return to a position he occupied for the majority of the last decade is unlikely to change the direction of a difficult bilateral relationship or alleviate concerns about President Xi Jinping’s government’s opaque workings.
Qin, Xi protege, was fired on Tuesday, less than a year after assuming the position. The 57-year-old former ambassador to the United States and Xi aide took over the ministry in December but hasn’t been seen in public since seeing visiting diplomats in Beijing on June 25.
The government stated that he was absent from work due to health reasons but provided no further information.
Wang has been a staple in US-China relations for years, known in Washington for his sharp intelligence and sometimes combative defense of China’s interests.
Analysts in Washington believe Wang’s return to the ministry will help China’s foreign ministry resume normal functioning following weeks of worldwide uncertainty about Qin’s fate.
However, it is unlikely to result in a significant improvement in hostile US-China relations, which have reached their lowest point in decades.
“None of these changes the structural reasons for friction in the relationship,” said Joseph Torigian of the American University in Washington, an expert on China’s Communist leaders.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
During a press conference on Tuesday, US State Department deputy spokeswoman Vedant Patel stated that it was up to China to choose its foreign minister and that Blinken had spoken with Wang several times.
A SWAYING DIPLOMAT
Wang’s second term as foreign minister indicates Beijing’s desire for stable US relations ahead of Xi’s likely meetings with US President Joe Biden later this year on the sidelines of global summits such as the G20 in India in September and the APEC leaders meeting in California in November.
“With a series of major international meetings coming up, Xi went with someone who knows many of his foreign counterparts,” said Rorry Daniels, Managing Director of the Asia Society Policy Institute. “In times of uncertainty, China wants continuity and predictability in this position.”
Diplomats from the United States and China are negotiating a number of thorny topics, including China’s increasingly hostile behavior toward Taiwan, the self-governed island it claims as its own, and the United States’ export regulations aimed at impeding China’s ability to manufacture advanced semiconductors.
Given these issues, Wang’s position in China’s ruling Communist Party may be advantageous to the US.
The top diplomat in the Chinese system is not a foreign minister, but rather the director of the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign affairs commission, which Wang will continue to hold.
Wang’s concurrent seat atop the country’s two top foreign policy positions, according to Jude Blanchette, a China expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, removed a layer of bureaucracy for US interlocutors.
And, as a member of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo of 24, Wang has probably more clout with China’s top officials than his predecessor.
Blinken maintained interactions with Wang even while Qin was foreign minister, though exchanges had been tense at times, particularly after an alleged Chinese spy balloon breached US airspace and was shot down earlier this year, causing Wang to chastise Washington for its “hysterical” reaction.
Nonetheless, Blanchette believes Wang’s reappointment reflects difficulties in China’s foreign policy establishment.
“The bigger story here is the sheer unpredictability and opacity of the Chinese system, which can see a top foreign policy official thrown into a black hole for a month with absolutely zero information from Beijing,” he explained.
Following Wang’s appointment, content mentioning Qin was promptly removed from China’s foreign ministry website on Tuesday. The tab on the website that usually contains the foreign minister’s biography merely said “Updating.”
According to Craig Singleton, deputy head of the China program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Wang’s selection demonstrated a paucity of good options for Beijing.
“To put it simply, there is a scarcity of seasoned Chinese diplomats who are both trusted by Xi and have the necessary US experience for this highly visible role,” he said.