China’s Foreign Ministry Reshuffle Could Shift Its Global Approach

Who’s in and who’s out after the Party Congress may affect diplomacy.

By , a member of AmCham China's Government Affairs and Policy team, focusing on US-China bilateral issues, market access, and public-private bilateral cooperation
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi answers a question during a video news conference as part of the National People's Congress in 2021.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi answers a question during a video news conference as part of the National People's Congress in 2021.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi answers a question during a video news conference as part of the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 7, 2021. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Changes are coming to the upper echelons of Chinese leadership amid the impending 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), kicking off in Beijing on Oct. 16. At this twice-a-decade meeting, roughly 2,300 delegates will gather to represent the CCP’s estimated 90 million members.

The last five years of China’s foreign affairs had an increase in strong posturing from diplomats and ambassadors abroad, an increase in challenges to values-based differences between China and the West, and an increase in China’s foreign aid expansion amidst the global coronavirus pandemic. Its zero-covid policy has left China isolated and cut off from sources of people-to-people diplomacy that once played an important role in its diplomatic strategy, while the country’s image has cratered in many countries. The leaders of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) will help shape policies that could be decisive for China’s future global role.

The MFA is the first-ranked executive department of the State Council of the Chinese government, responsible for Chinese foreign relations. The MFA is responsible for all of China’s diplomatic activities and the implementation of its foreign-policy directives.

Changes are coming to the upper echelons of Chinese leadership amid the impending 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), kicking off in Beijing on Oct. 16. At this twice-a-decade meeting, roughly 2,300 delegates will gather to represent the CCP’s estimated 90 million members.

The last five years of China’s foreign affairs had an increase in strong posturing from diplomats and ambassadors abroad, an increase in challenges to values-based differences between China and the West, and an increase in China’s foreign aid expansion amidst the global coronavirus pandemic. Its zero-covid policy has left China isolated and cut off from sources of people-to-people diplomacy that once played an important role in its diplomatic strategy, while the country’s image has cratered in many countries. The leaders of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) will help shape policies that could be decisive for China’s future global role.

The MFA is the first-ranked executive department of the State Council of the Chinese government, responsible for Chinese foreign relations. The MFA is responsible for all of China’s diplomatic activities and the implementation of its foreign-policy directives.

The current foreign minister, Wang Yi, who concurrently serves as a state councilor, will likely retire following the Party Congress due to his age. At 68 years old, Wang surpassed the traditional retirement cap for senior officials during his last appointment. Previously, officials over 65 years old at the time of a Party Congress were known to retire. Xi’s own age of 69 has sparked questions regarding this cap, but few expect an official change to retirement norms to take place. Before being appointed as foreign minister, Wang served as both ambassador to Japan from 2004 to 2007 and director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council from 2008 to 2015, thereby gaining leadership experience dealing with some of China’s trickiest regional issues.

Wang’s tenure as foreign minister has been marked by a switch to a more critical view of international organizations and a direct challenge to many values-based issues championed by the West, such as human rights, issues of sovereignty, and foreign aid. Wang has been a core ally of Xi, especially during the coronavirus era where he has taken many international trips to extoll China’s foreign policy and meet with international partners on his behalf. At the same time, Wang has been very successful in building up partnerships in the Middle East and Central and South America. He is also well known for his larger-than-life personality.

A possible successor to Wang is Liu Haixing. Liu serves as the deputy director of the Office of the National Security Commission, a role often used to groom leaders for higher-ranking and public-facing roles in the party. Liu was born in 1963 and is a career diplomat with rich experiences in the European affairs arm of the MFA. His appointment would signify a shift towards stabilizing China’s relationship with Europe and expanding global influence in international organizations. Liu does not have the same public-facing image as Wang, who was often interpreted as brash by foreign media. An appointment of Liu could mark a subtle move away from the “wolf warrior” image that China has gained over the last few years.

Also worthy of note is Vice Minister Ma Zhaoxu, who became the second-ranked executive official in the MFA after former Vice Minister Le Yucheng was appointed as deputy head of the State Radio and Broadcasting Administration in June. In contrast to Le’s background in Russian and Central and South Asian Affairs, Ma’s portfolio covers international organizations, European affairs, policy research and information. Ma has taken Le’s previous task in managing the relationship with Central Asian countries and played an important role in Xi Jinping’s recent trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit. Many Central Asian nations are feeling pressure to pivot away from Russia’s influence as a result of the ongoing invasion and conflict in the Ukraine. As another large neighbor that spent the past decade pushing regional investment into Central Asia in the name of the Belt and Road Initiative, China is poised to gain influence where Russia has lost if they are able to find the right footing.

Along with Ma, career diplomats looking to move up the ranks within the MFA leadership are Vice Minister Xie Feng, who oversees American and Oceanic affairs, Vice Minister Deng Li, who oversees African and Western Asian affairs, Assistant Minister Wu Jianghao who oversees East and Southeastern Asian affairs, Assistant Minister Xu Feihong, who oversees finance and diplomatic management, and Assistant Minister Hua Chunying, a ministry spokeswoman also responsible for information and reception.

Another key group is the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, chaired by President Xi, and often viewed as China’s most powerful decision-making group on foreign policy. Throughout his tenure, Xi has become the chair of more commissions and leadership groups than his predecessors. This role has increased his influence and oversight across the policy spectrum. The director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission is a senior-level advisory role considered to be a top position for members of China’s diplomatic and foreign-policy community. The primary job of a director is to assist the president in analyzing and shaping China’s foreign policy and relationships, very roughly equivalent to the post of national security advisor in the United States.

The Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission is led by Director Yang Jiechi. Yang was born in 1950 and is a member of Politburo. Due to his age of 72, he is likely to retire after the upcoming Party Congress. His experience is largely centered around U.S. relations, having served as the ambassador to the United States from 2001 to 2005 and being a well-respected member of the diplomatic U.S. relations community of the Foreign Ministry. Yang’s appointment to the position at the 19th Party Congress in 2017 was viewed by many as a strategic focus on resolving issues in the current U.S.-China relationship and managing the difference between the two global powers on the world stage.

The most likely man to succeed Yang is the director of the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, Liu Jieyi, but it remains uncertain if Liu will join the 25-seat Politburo with many other senior officials also looking to move up the ranks this year. Liu, 64, is experienced enough to be promoted having had a rich diplomatic career with positions heading the Departments of Arms Control, International Organizations, and North American and Oceanic Affairs before becoming an assistant minister, and then vice minister, of the International Liaison Department, as well as ambassador to the United Nations. Since 2018, Liu has directed the Taiwan Affairs Office, a position Wang held before becoming a state councilor and foreign minister, but also something of a political hot potato due to China’s failure to advance its agenda in Taiwan over the last few years. Because of Liu’s significant foreign-policy experience, he would likely concurrently serve as both state councilor and director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission. His promotion to this role would signify a continued focus on Taiwan and also a focus on rebuilding China’s role in international organizations.

The CCP itself plays an important role in foreign affairs, with the International Liaison Department (IDCPC) managing party-to-party relationships with foreign countries. It is an agency under the Central Committee in charge of establishing and maintaining relations with foreign political parties. Previously, the IDCPC was primarily responsible for liaison with socialist countries such as the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, North Korea, and Southeast Asian countries. The IDCPC often takes a more subdued approach to its diplomatic efforts but is still responsible for relationship-building with China’s partners.

Liu Jianchao has recently been confirmed as the minister of the IDCPC, replacing former minister Song Tao, whom Xi worked alongside for decades since his early career in Fujian. It is likely that Liu will stay in this role following the 20th Party Congress, and he might be further promoted in the years ahead. Liu previously served as the foreign ministry’s chief spokesperson between 2006 and 2009 and was viewed as more open and friendly than subsequent spokespeople. Most recently, he served as deputy director of the Office for the Central Foreign Affairs Commission. The appointment of Liu suggests that the role of the International Liaison Department may become more important in its diplomatic activities due to Liu’s extensive experience as a spokesperson, career diplomat, and trusted advisor on foreign-policy issues.

There will also be a number of personnel changes in key ambassadorships around the world. The ambassadorships give leaders the potential to shape foreign relations in their host country and can also give China an opportunity to pivot its policy positioning with each new selection. Among 17 vice ministerial ambassadors, the ambassadorship to the European Union delegation in Brussels has been vacant since former Ambassador Zhang Ming left his post for a secretaryship in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization late last year.

The ambassadorship to Brazil has been vacant since Yang Wanming was reappointed to deputy director of the State Council of Hong Kong and Macao Affairs. The current ambassadors to Japan and North Korea, both born in the 1950s, will soon retire with apparent successors likely to be IDCPC Vice Minister Wang Yajun for North Korea and MFA Assistant Minister Wu Jianghao for Japan. Those born in the early 1960s, including ambassadors to the United Nations and Germany, are one step from retirement. Meanwhile, ambassador to the United States Qin Gang and a few key ambassadors born after 1965 have the potential to move further up the party ranks, as China looks to utilize their expertise to navigate the complex external environment.

While the confirmation of these new leaders will not be made public until after the 20th Party Congress concludes in late October or possibly not until the “Two Sessions,” where a new leadership of the State Council will emerge, the grooming and selection of leaders equipped to deal with China’s unique foreign-policy challenges is well underway.

Allison Lapehn lives in Beijing, where she helps to support foreign businesses through business, risk, and policy advisory. She currently works as a member of AmCham China's Government Affairs and Policy team, focusing on US-China bilateral issues, market access, and public-private bilateral cooperation. The opinions expressed above are the author's own.

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