Passport

Actually, John Kerry doesn’t have a Chinese counterpart

From April 12 to April 15, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry toured Asia — discussing North Korea’s provocations and meeting with a series of top officials including his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, the foreign ministers of those two countries. In China, he met with the two top Communist Party officials as well as the ...

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) shakes hands with Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi before a meeting at the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing April 13, 2013. (KYODO NEWS/YOHSUKE MIZUNO-POOL)

From April 12 to April 15, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry toured Asia — discussing North Korea’s provocations and meeting with a series of top officials including his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, the foreign ministers of those two countries. In China, he met with the two top Communist Party officials as well as the state councilor in charge of foreign policy, Yang Jiechi, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who is sometimes called Kerry’s counterpart. But it’s worth noting that Wang is much, much lower down on Beijing’s official totem pole than Kerry is on Washington’s.

In the United States, the secretary of state is unquestionably important, as the line of succession makes clear. If the president dies, Kerry is fourth in line, behind the vice president, the speaker of the House, and the president pro tempore of the Senate. China has no public line of succession, but it does rank its top officials: the 25 members of China’s top governing body, the Politburo, are nominally the most powerful officials in China (with the exceptions of influential former officials like Jiang Zemin, who no longer hold official positions, and with the regular caveats about Chinese political opacity, this ranking is considered accurate). Within that group is the even more elite seven-member Standing Committee, chaired by Xi Jinping, who’s ranked number one and widely seen as the most powerful man in China.  

Where does State Councilor Yang fit in to all of this? Not only is he outside both the Standing Committee and the Politburo, but he’s also probably less powerful than several — if not dozens — of high-ranking officials who are also not Politburo members, as well as the retired officials from the last Standing Committee, including Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, who are also no longer Politburo members. Call Yang the 40th most-powerful official in China — roughly equivalent to Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Bob Menendez.

And Yang easily outranks the foreign minister. China’s premier Li Keqiang, ranked second in the official hierarchy, oversees the State Council. And Yang, as one of five state councilors, plays a role in managing China’s ministries, of which the Foreign Ministry is but one — and one seen as relatively weak.

Foreign Minister Wang, in other words, has the kind of power Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs Ed Royce wields on a bad day.

So where is foreign policy made in China? "By the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, which General Secretary Xi Jinping heads," Willy Lam, senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, wrote in March in these pages. "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." 

So keep in mind: When Kerry sits down with Yang and Wang — as he did on this trip and will likely do again during the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a meeting between high-level U.S. and Chinese officials — he’s not meeting with the real decision-makers. 

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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