WASHINGTON: China’s decision to reappoint its top diplomat Wang Yi as foreign minister one month after former rising star Qin Gang disappeared from public view means Washington will be dealing with a familiar face in its bid to steady relations with its main strategic rival.
But Wang’s return to a post he held for most of the past decade is unlikely to alter the trajectory of a troubled bilateral relationship or dispel concerns about the opaque workings of President Xi Jinping’s government.
The removal of Qin, reputedly a Xi protege, on Tuesday came barely half a year after he assumed the role. The 57-year-old former ambassador to the United States and Xi aide took over the ministry in December but has not been seen in public since June 25 when he met visiting diplomats in Beijing.
The ministry has said he was off work for health reasons but has given no details.
Wang, known in Washington for his sharp intellect and his sometimes aggressive defense of China’s positions, has been a fixture in US-China relations for years.
Washington-based analysts say Wang’s return to the ministry should help China’s foreign ministry resume normal operations after weeks of international speculation about Qin’s fate.
But it is unlikely to yield any major improvement in tense US-China relations, which have hit their lowest point in decades.
“None of this changes the structural reasons for friction in the relationship,” said Joseph Torigian, an expert on China’s Communist leaders at American University in Washington.
China’s embassy in Washington did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
At a briefing on Tuesday US State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said it was up to China to choose its foreign minister and Blinken had met Wang multiple times.
A DIPLOMAT WITH SWAY
Wang’s second stint as foreign minister suggests an eagerness in Beijing for stable U.S. relations ahead of Xi’s likely meetings with US President Joe Biden later this year on the sidelines of global summits, including the G20 in India in September and a gathering of APEC leaders in California in November.
“With a series of major international meetings coming up, Xi defaulted to someone who has relationships with many of his foreign counterparts,” said Rorry Daniels, Managing Director of Asia Society Policy Institute. “In times of uncertainty, China wants continuity and predictability in this position.”
U.S. and Chinese diplomats are grappling with a range of contentious issues, including China’s increasingly aggressive actions over Taiwan, the self-governed island it claims as its own, and the United States’ export controls aimed at hobbling China’s ability to developed advanced semiconductors.
Given these challenges, Wang’s seniority in China’s ruling Communist Party could be helpful to the US
In the Chinese system, the top diplomat is not foreign minister but rather the director of the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign affairs commission, a role Wang will continue to hold.
Jude Blanchette, a China expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Wang’s concurrent perch atop the country’s two top foreign policy positions removed a layer of bureaucracy for US interlocutors.
And as a member of the Communist Party’s 24-man ruling Politburo, Wang is a diplomat with arguably more sway with China’s top leaders than his predecessor.
Even while Qin was foreign minister, Blinken had contacts with Wang, though exchanges had been frosty at times, particularly after an alleged Chinese spy balloon crossed US airspace and was shot down earlier this year, prompting Wang to scold Washington for its “hysterical” reaction.
Still, Wang’s reappointment is a sign of problems in China’s foreign policy establishment, said Blanchette.
“The bigger story here is the sheer unpredictability and opacity of the Chinese system, which can see a top foreign policy official be thrown into a black hole for a month with absolutely zero information from Beijing,” he said.
On Tuesday, content mentioning Qin was quickly removed from China’s foreign ministry website after Wang’s appointment. The tab on the website that typically holds the biography of the foreign minister simply read “Updating.”
The choice of Wang for the role also reflected a lack of good options for Beijing, said Craig Singleton, deputy director of the China program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Simply put, there remains a dearth of seasoned Chinese diplomats that are both trusted by Xi and possess the requisite US experience for this highly visible role,” he said.