Two individuals are set to become the face of the Chinese foreign policy establishment. The names of Wang Yi and Qin Gang will often be heard over the next five years – probably longer.
At the 38th meeting of the 13th National People’s Congress Qin Gang, the current ambassador to the US, was appointed as the next foreign minister of China. The choice signals a conciliatory tone to the US as the geopolitical competition with China has intensified. Qin’s ability to fluently converse in English and his calm and confident demeanour in interviews with the US media turned him into a rising star during his time as the ambassador to the US.
Qin is one of the first social media-savvy Chinese diplomats to become the foreign minister. He doesn’t shy away from using Twitter, the microblogging site which is now a standard in the diplomatic world. Even though Qin doesn’t have a public-facing Weibo account, the social media platform is preferred in the mainland.
Qin Gang’s Xi ties and meteoric rise
He was selected to join the coveted 20th Party Congress in October, which was a sign that he was likely prepared for a crucial foreign policy role. Qin’s appointment as the ambassador to the US while serving as the vice minister at a relatively young age is likely to be the result of his ties to Xi, according to some commentators.
Born in March 1966 in Tianjin, Qin had ambitions to join China’s diplomatic service, reflected by his early choice to study International Relations. Qin graduated from the Department of International Politics at the University of International Relations in Beijing.
He served as the foreign ministry spokesperson from 2005-2010 and then again from 2011-2014. In 2014, Qin’s fortune began to rise when he was promoted to the head of the foreign ministry’s protocol department.
While Qin was a spokesperson, he faced his share of controversy. He was the first firebrand spokesperson who would become the face of the assertive Chinese foreign policy, which didn’t shy away from defending its interests.
In 2009, Qin called the US officials ‘nosy’ and ‘voyeuristic’ when the Americans asked for more transparency from the Chinese side. “If someone always tears through your clothes and even wants to lift open your underwear, saying, ‘Let me see what is inside,’ how would you feel?” said Qin, according to a source who translated Qin’s comments.
Qin was unhappy with the US official during the Obama administration, demanding more transparency and giving a glimpse into his ability to use ‘undiplomatic’ language when required.
But Qin is no dove among the Chinese diplomats. In 2021, a German journalist asked him to comment on China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy. He gave a spirited response by saying people who “blatantly smeared China” are “evil wolves”.
Qin has a long history of dealing with India-related matters as a foreign ministry spokesperson.
In 2009, India’s former President Pratibha Patil visited Tawang, which Beijing contested. “China’s position on the China-India boundary issue is consistent and clear. China and India should work together to implement the consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries and ensure the healthy and stable development of China-India relations,” said Qin.
Qin will now be at the forefront of dealing with the unresolved military stand-off in Ladakh.
On 26 December, Qin published an op-ed in the National Interest, which may have been his parting message to the US and the world before he accepted the foreign ministry position. “As to the border issues between China and India, the status quo is that both sides are willing to ease the situation and jointly protect peace along their borders,” he wrote.
But we shouldn’t read too much into Qin’s comment as Wang Yi and other Chinese diplomats used the same language. The diplomats will only be stepping in to defend the actions of the Central Military Commission under Xi Jinping.
Though Qin sounded a more conciliatory tone in relations with the US, he couldn’t achieve much as the relations between US and China remained severely strained throughout his term.
Qin was given limited access to US officials, according to some media reports, which the White House denies. The rhetoric coming out of the Bali summit suggests that both sides remain committed to managing their strategic competition.
Also read: What dominates Chinese chatter on India—economy, cheaper medicine
Wang Yi’s new role
On 1 January, the CCP ideological journal published an article which confirmed Wang Yi’s new role as the director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission (CFAC).
Wang Yi is no stranger to Indians who regularly follow India-China relations but his promotion as the director of the CFAC has significant implications for India. In fact, it is far more significant than Qin’s promotion as the next foreign minister of China.
In 2018, Xi Jinping introduced the CFAC at the annual National People’s Congress session. The CFAC has taken a central role in shaping China’s foreign policy approach. The new commission replaced an earlier Central Leading Small Group on Foreign Affairs, which was responsible for executive-level planning on foreign policy matters. The CFAC is an institution of the CCP, and the foreign minister is answerable to the director of CFAC, who takes guidance from Xi Jinping.
According to experts who watch elite Chinese politics, the formation of CFAC has resulted in the consolidation of the foreign policy-making process at the very top, reducing the role of the bureaucrats. There are no exact parallels for CFAC in India, but an institution that comes close to it would be the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs; the former comes with the power to decide on diplomatic postings and set the foreign policy agenda.
Therefore, the CFAC is a CCP-driven entity which sits at the top of foreign policy hierarchy in China. Now, Wang will become Qin’s immediate boss, and the former ultimately answers to Xi himself.
Wang Yi’s elevation as the director of the CFAC is probably the pinnacle of a diplomatic career in China. Wang managed to reach the position by adhering to ideological lines drawn by Xi.
“China’s diplomacy will adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, conscientiously study, publicise and implement the spirit of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, unite more closely around the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core, and deeply understand the decisiveness of the ‘two establishments’, we will strengthen the ‘four consciousnesses’, strengthen the ‘four self-confidences’, and achieve the ‘two safeguards’, striving to write a new chapter of major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics in the new era,” wrote Wang Yi in his article published in CCP’s ideological journal, Qiushi.
Wang’s initial diplomatic career as a ‘Japan expert’ shapes his worldview about working with Asian countries to create a breathing room for Beijing as the competition with the US deepens. He has described Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (aka Quad) as a ‘headline grabbing’ entity that will ‘dissipate like sea foam’. One of Wang’s priorities as director of CFAC would be to keep the strong views about the direction of China’s development and foreign policy divided by keeping Quad at bay.
Besides Qin Gang and Wang Yi, the Chinese diplomats on the rise in the Party system include Liu Jianchao, director of the International Liaison Department; Liu Haixing, deputy director of the National Security Commission; and Qi Yu, party secretary of the foreign ministry.
Qin cites border tensions with India in his article before becoming the foreign minister and Wang’s relatively long history of dealing with India, giving us a hint that relations with New Delhi will be one of the top priorities for the Chinese foreign policy administration in the 20th Party Congress cycle. Beijing has hinted that 2023 will constitute visits by prominent world leaders as the country engages in what has been described as ‘head-of-state diplomacy’. Qin and Wang will be at the forefront of Chinese diplomacy to ensure that ‘head-of-state diplomacy’ is successful as China drops the Covid measures.
We can be assured that these individuals have the limited ability to independently influence the direction of Chinese foreign policy as they owe their promotion to personal ties and adhere to Xi’s ideological agenda.
Aadil Brar is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)