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The Chinese Diplomats to Watch After the 20th Party Congress

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The Chinese Diplomats to Watch After the 20th Party Congress

The potential nominees for China’s next foreign minister might provide some insights into the future trend of China’s foreign policy.

The Chinese Diplomats to Watch After the 20th Party Congress

China’s Ambassador to the U.S. Qin Gang delivers remarks to the media on his arrival to the United States, Jul 28, 2021.

Credit: Twitter/ Qin Gang

On October 22, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced the list of new senior officials elected to the Central Committee at the 20th Party Congress, five of whom were diplomats: State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Director of the  International Liaison Department Liu Jianchao, deputy director of the National Security Commission office Liu Haixing, party secretary of the Foreign Ministry Qi Yu and Ambassador to the United States Qin Gang.

Given that either four or five diplomats have been elected to the Central Committee in the past 30 years, their representation this time is quite aligned with the past. However, these diplomats have some unique features compared with those elevated in past party congresses. The potential nominees for China’s next foreign minister might provide some insights into the future trend of China’s foreign policy.

The Unique Features of the Elected Diplomats

First and foremost, Wang Yi was elected as a member of the Politburo at 69 years old, an age at which even a member of the Politburo Standing Committee would typically retire. Assuming Wang will be promoted to a higher office, that leaves the other four diplomats on the Central Committee as the leading candidates to be the next foreign minister.

The second unusual factor is that, except for Qin Gang’s appointment as the ambassador to the United States in 2021, none of the four have been posted abroad since 2014. Liu Haixing’s stint as a minister at the Chinese embassy in France ended in 2012, Liu Jianchao’s ambassadorship to Indonesia ended in 2013, and Qi Yu has never held any foreign assignment. Since departing from the post of embassy minister to the UK in 2011, Qin Gang had not held any position abroad until his took up his current post is 2021. This situation indicates that whoever becomes the next foreign minister would be much less experienced than the three previous ministers in dealing with their foreign counterparts.

The four leading candidates lack experience in the United States and Japan, two countries that have been crucial to China’s foreign policy for a long time. From Tang Jiaxuan to Wang Yi, Chinese foreign ministers in the past 25 years had abundant experience in either the U.S. or Japan. Even though Qin Gang has been assigned to Washington as the Chinese ambassador for almost a year, he had never held any formal post in the United States previously. That means his experience and social network could still be far less than other former ambassadors to the U.S. who made the transition to foreign minister, like Li Zhaoxing and Yang Jiechi.

Who Will Be the Next Chinese Foreign Minister?

Any of these five diplomats could be selected as the next Chinese foreign minister, including Wang Yi. Late Premier Zhou Enlai and late Vice Premiers Chen Yi and Qian Qichen had all served as the foreign minister while simultaneously holding higher-ranking positions, giving the actual administrative authority to their vice ministers. Seeing that the personnel arrangements of the 20th Party Congress have already broken many traditions and conventions, Qi Yu, without any diplomatic experience other than serving as party secretary of the foreign ministry, might also have a chance to become the next minister.

Still, Chinese diplomat personnel arrangement conventions could provide insight for further analysis. Those with experience as vice foreign minister stand a better chance to become the minister. Among 11 Chinese foreign ministers, only Zhou Enlai, Chen Yi, and Huang Hua had not served as vice foreign minister. Except for Wang Yi – who was transferred to the foreign minister post from the director of the Taiwan Affairs Office – the other seven ministers were promoted from vice foreign minister. Vice ministers are in charge of a specific part of ministry affairs, divided up by areas and issues, which is conducive to testing their capacity. Qin Gang is the only candidate that has served as vice minister, while Liu Jianchao and Liu Haixing have served as assistant ministers, a position that resembles the former post but is more junior.

It is worth noting that Qin Gang’s situation – selected to the Central Committee while ambassador the United States – has some precedents. For instance, then-Ambassador Yang Jiechi was elected as an alternate member of the Central Committee in the 16th Party Congress in 2002, while then-Ambassador Zhang Yesui received the same honor in the 18th Party Congress in 2012. Yang Jiechi kept on serving as the ambassador until his promotion to foreign minister in April 2007, right before the 17th Party Congress.

Zhang Yesui, based on the information from the Chinese embassy in the United States, also kept on serving as ambassador until his transfer to a vice minister post in February 2013. However, his official resume on the ministry website shows that he was tapped as the vice minister right after he was elected as an alternate member of the Central Committee in 2012. That would mean that his vice minister post was a concurrent one, a rare situation in the Chinese foreign ministry that could be seen as a sign of his promotion. In the end, Zhang was appointed as party secretary of the ministry, a minister-level position.

Considering all factors, it would be reasonable to say that Liu Haixing and Qin Gang might have the best chance to be the next foreign minister among the five candidates. Given that Wang Yi has been the foreign minister for 10 years, it is rational to expect other younger diplomats to step into his shoes. Qi Yu has no significant foreign affairs experience, meaning he would not be a logical choice to handle Chinese foreign policy in a contentious world. Seeing that Liu Jianchao was just appointed as the director of the International Liaison Department, it is unlikely that he would be transferred to another position within one year.

Some signs imply that Liu Haixing might be the next minister. He is a seasoned diplomat who has held many positions related to Europe, especially France. It is worth noting that both his predecessors as the deputy director of NSC’s office were elevated after their terms: Cai Qi was elected a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, and Chen Wenqing was elected as a member of the Politburo in the 20th Party Congress. The success rate implies that those who serve as deputy director of the NSC office must be confidants of Chinese President Xi Jinping and, therefore, would be promoted to higher office.

This year, two pieces of news accorded with the expectation. On May 30, Sing Tao Newspaper reported that Liu would be appointed vice foreign minister. On July 19, he sat in the section of minister-level officials during the election of delegates to the 20th Party Congress from the central party and state organs, indicating that he had been promoted to the minister-level. If he is eventually appointed vice foreign minister, we should expect Liu to be the next foreign minister.

Qin Gang is another potential choice to be the next foreign minister. Known for being the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, he had served as director-general of the Information Department and Protocol Department before his promotion to assistant and then vice foreign minister. It is important to note that he is the only diplomat elected as a full Central Committee member while serving as ambassador to the United States, indicating that he would be assigned to another vital position requiring his experience in the U.S. Based on the convention of former ambassadors to the U.S., he would be transferred back to the ministry as a minister-level official.

It is vital to note that there is a precedent for two Central Committee members to lead the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Li Zhaoxing and Dai Bingguo were elected in the 16th Party Congress in 2002 as Central Committee members and appointed minister and party secretary of the foreign ministry, respectively. Qin might be named as concurrent vice foreign minister and could become a minister-level official, even the minister, in the Foreign Ministry.

Policy Implications

The choice between Liu Haixing and Qin Gang symbolizes the policy options between an all-out struggle and restrained competition against the United States. Since the deterioration of China-U.S. relations following the trade war in 2018, China’s assessment of the future of this vital bilateral relationship has gradually become pessimistic. Since competition is inevitable, the critical question is whether or not to maintain surface-level harmony between two countries. If China chooses to launch a fierce struggle against the United States, it would need to conciliate European countries. Liu’s abundant Europe-related experience makes him a fine choice to execute this task. If China decides to sustain a degree of friendly relations with the U.S., Qin’s current position and experience might render him suitable for the task. Hence, the choice of the next Chinese foreign minister might tell China’s foreign policy trend.

Nevertheless, China requires enhanced crisis management and policy coordination on foreign policy, whoever the next foreign minister may be. Although Song Tao and Liu Jieyi were expected to see promotions based on their age and minister-level positions, Xi promoted Wang Yi – breaking age limit norms to do so – rather than these two senior diplomats in the 20th Party Congress. Comparing their diplomat careers, Wang successfully improved China-Japan relations and led the Foreign Ministry for almost 10 years, meaning that he is much more experienced in crisis management and policy coordination. Consequently, Wang’s promotion could imply that Xi expects many international challenges and crises ahead and demands that Wang manage Chinese foreign policy for him.