The view from the ground.

Meet China’s New Foreign-Policy Team

Is Beijing using its latest appointments to send a message to Washington?

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

HONG KONG — As the United States pivots to Asia, lining up allies against China’s rise, Beijing is pivoting right back, boosting its diplomatic offensive in the Asia Pacific by putting together a new foreign-policy team consisting of U.S. and regional specialists.

While the new appointments won’t be formally announced by the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, until mid-March, two senior party sources in Beijing have confirmed promotions for veteran diplomats Yang Jiechi, Wang Yi, and Cui Tiankai. Together, the appointments suggest that China wants to improve the optics of its relationship with the United States, if not the substance.

Yang, having run the Foreign Ministry for five years, will be promoted to State Councilor, one rung below vice premier. The 62-year-old fluent English speaker and former ambassador to the United States is expected to focus on big-picture strategies, including new thinking that will bolster China’s influence in the key Asia-Pacific theater.

Day-to-day implementation of foreign policy will be in the hands of Foreign Minister-designate Wang Yi, 59, who spent his entire career at that ministry (except for the past five years, when he headed the ministerial-level Taiwan Affairs Office, tasked with managing the mainland’s policy towards Taiwan). Wang, ambassador to Japan from 2004 to 2007 as well as a former director of the Foreign Ministry’s Asia department, will be the first-ever Asia hand to become foreign minister. Previous holders of the post have been either Russia or U.S. specialists.

Cui, 60, a U.S. expert whose current post is vice foreign minister in charge of North American affairs, will become China’s ambassador to the United States. Cui also has ample Asia experience. He previously succeeded Wang as ambassador to Tokyo, a post he held from 2007 to 2009.

While all three foreign-policy professionals have a reputation for favoring negotiation over bluster, it is far from clear that their appointment signals a change in the aggressive turn Beijing’s policy has taken toward sovereignty disputes in its neighborhood.

In China, major policies on diplomacy and national security are made not by the Foreign Ministry but by the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, which General Secretary Xi Jinping heads. Members of this top-level interdepartmental organ include representatives from the Foreign Ministry, the army, and the Ministry of State Security, as well as departments handling energy and foreign trade. But two Beijing sources close to the foreign-policy establishment say that Xi, who doubles as commander-in-chief of the military, has given the generals — many of them fellow princelings, the offspring of party elders — a bigger say in national-security issues than his predecessor Hu Jintao.

At least in terms of symbolism and atmospherics, however, the new diplomatic trio could take a more flexible approach to tackling the most worrying flashpoint in Asia: China and Japan’s ferocious wrangling over the sovereignty of a group of islets called the Diaoyu in China and the Senkakus in Japan.

Given widespread perception within the party leadership that the intensification of the U.S.-Japan defense alliance — which applies to the Senkakus — is a centerpiece of Washington’s pivot to Asia, the personnel changes in Beijing could also affect the style, if not the substance, of how the party will pursue relations with the United States.

Wang’s return to the Foreign Ministry after five largely successful years as chief executor of Beijing’s Taiwan policy is highly significant. A fluent Japanese speaker, Wang helped break the impasse in Sino-Japanese ties in 2001-2006, when Junichiro Koizumi was prime minister of Japan.

Koizumi infuriated the Chinese with provocative actions including annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors soldiers killed in World War II, including 14 war criminals. After Koizumi announced in June 2005 his plans to retire, Wang led the Chinese effort to mend fences by conducting secret talks with then Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the favorite to succeed Koizumi.

This discreet diplomacy resulted in Abe’s visiting Beijing in October 2006, less than two weeks after he succeeded Koizumi as prime minister (Abe, after a five year break, was re-elected prime minister in December 2012). The visit came despite the ideological affinity between Koizumi and Abe, both of whom favored a more assertive foreign policy as well as the revision of the Japanese Constitution, which would enable Japan to convert its self-defense forces into a regular army.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry characterized Abe’s 2006 trip as "ice-breaking." Abe allegedly made a private pledge not to visit the shrine while in office, and Beijing offered to focus on economic cooperation, while temporarily setting aside ideological and historical issues, according to diplomatic sources in Tokyo and Beijing.

Wang has also successfully helped negotiate the rapprochement over the past few years between the party and its former arch-enemy, the Kuomintang, the ruling party of Taiwan. Known for his charm and finesse, Wang could complement Yang, who has the reputation of a cerebral strategist.

By promoting Yang to the post of state councilor in charge of diplomacy, the party leadership may also be sending the signal that it’s contemplating a more nuanced posture toward Obama’s pivot, which some in the party leadership interpret as a move to contain China. Yang has much more experience with the United States than the outgoing state councilor, Dai Bingguo, who spent most of his career on Russian and East European affairs. Yang cut his diplomatic teeth by serving as interpreter for former President George H.W. Bush, when the latter headed the United States’ Beijing Liaison Office (the precursor to the U.S. Embassy) in the mid-1970s. Altogether Yang, a graduate of the London School of Economics, has served three tours in the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

Yang enjoys cozy ties with American politicians and in particular, business leaders. He wants to devote more resources to lobbying American multinationals, according to sources close to the diplomatic establishment. These sources also say that Beijing hopes this will persuade the White House to put business before ideology in its China policy. And Cui, who attended Johns Hopkins University while serving in the Chinese delegation to the United Nations in the 1980s, could be a suitable candidate for pursing this new-look, "people-to-people" diplomacy with the United States.

It is important to note, however, that whatever changes in style and orientation the trio’s appointment may portend do not necessarily signal a de-escalation of Beijing’s increasingly ferocious saber rattling. The generals appear to overwhelmingly favor bellicosity — they have enthusiastically echoed Xi’s repeated calls over the past two months for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to "get ready to fight well and to win wars." Gen. Wei Fenghe, who is commander of China’s missile forces, said in February that the PLA must "improve its war-fighting skills" and "it must fulfill the task of winning wars." And recent commentary in People’s Liberation Army Daily, a military newspaper, argued that the Chinese military must rid itself of "peacetime inertia and other [bad] habits accumulated over a prolonged period of peace." Popular military commentator Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, who in April 2012 called for a limited war to "punish" the Philippines for allegedly occupying Chinese territories in the South China Sea, even suggested in a January 2013 interview with Chinese state media that China "must raise its guard against stealthy [military] attacks launched by other countries." Even as diplomats such as Fu Ying, the vice foreign minister in charge of Asia, have reiterated Beijing’s commitment to "peaceful development" in global affairs, China has increased the frequency of its "patrol" of the Diaoyu-Senkakus by marine surveillance and other quasi-military vessels.

It is too early to say whether the promotion of diplomats with decades of experience in pursuing mutually beneficiary relations with Japan and the United States signals a fundamental change in the Xi administration’s pugilistic stance on power projection in the Pacific. Yet at the very least, these personnel changes could indicate that top decision-making bodies are contemplating options other than relentlessly beating the drums of war.

Willy Lam is an adjunct professor in the history department and the Center for China Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

More from Foreign Policy

Residents evacuated from Shebekino and other Russian towns near the border with Ukraine are seen in a temporary shelter in Belgorod, Russia, on June 2.
Residents evacuated from Shebekino and other Russian towns near the border with Ukraine are seen in a temporary shelter in Belgorod, Russia, on June 2.

Russians Are Unraveling Before Our Eyes

A wave of fresh humiliations has the Kremlin struggling to control the narrative.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva shake hands in Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva shake hands in Beijing.

A BRICS Currency Could Shake the Dollar’s Dominance

De-dollarization’s moment might finally be here.

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler in an episode of The Diplomat
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler in an episode of The Diplomat

Is Netflix’s ‘The Diplomat’ Factual or Farcical?

A former U.S. ambassador, an Iran expert, a Libya expert, and a former U.K. Conservative Party advisor weigh in.

An illustration shows the faces of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin interrupted by wavy lines of a fragmented map of Europe and Asia.
An illustration shows the faces of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin interrupted by wavy lines of a fragmented map of Europe and Asia.

The Battle for Eurasia

China, Russia, and their autocratic friends are leading another epic clash over the world’s largest landmass.