Liu Jianchao: New foreign minister, same foreign policy?

Liu Jianchao could become China’s next foreign minister. While he could improve China’s outreach efforts, he is unlikely to bring about any significant change in China’s foreign policy.
Liu Jianchao, head of the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party, holds a meeting with president of Komeito Natsuo Yamaguchi in Beijing, China, on 22 November 2023. Liu is said to be a top pick for the post of China's next foreign minister. (Yomiuri via Reuters)
Liu Jianchao, head of the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party, holds a meeting with president of Komeito Natsuo Yamaguchi in Beijing, China, on 22 November 2023. Liu is said to be a top pick for the post of China's next foreign minister. (Yomiuri via Reuters)

China may have a new foreign minister when the annual session of the 14th National People’s Congress (NPC) convenes in Beijing in March 2024. A frontrunner is Liu Jianchao, director of the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who has been referred to as the “foreign minister-designate” or “shadow foreign minister” by foreign observers.

Speculation that China will have a younger foreign minister increased when Wang Yi, almost 70 years old, was reappointed foreign minister in July 2023 after his successor Qin Gang was abruptly removed.

An initial candidate was Ma Chaoxu, first vice foreign minister, who came under the spotlight when he represented China at the BRICS Foreign Ministers’ Extraordinary Meeting in July last year. Although Ma’s administrative rank is equivalent to that of a minister, he is not a Central Committee member, a criterion for a foreign minister. He is also not as prominent as Liu.

Beyond the foreign ministry, Liu has extensive party and provincial experience that career diplomats like Ma Chaoxu lack.

Liu Jianchao: considered the CCP's de facto foreign minister

Liu is a much stronger candidate for foreign minister. In the foreign ministry, Liu started out as a translator in 1987 and worked his way up to other posts: director-general of the Information Department, foreign ministry spokesperson, Chinese ambassador to the Philippines and Chinese ambassador to Indonesia. Before leaving the foreign ministry in 2015, Liu was assistant minister and member of the CCP Committee at the foreign ministry.

At first glance, Mr Ma appears to have a higher-profile foreign posting as he was Chinese ambassador to Australia, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations and other International Organisations in Geneva, and China’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York before becoming vice foreign minister in 2019.

However, Liu returned to the foreign ministry in a more senior capacity when he was appointed deputy director of the Office of the CCP Central Commission for Foreign Affairs and secretary of the CCP Committee at the foreign ministry in 2018.

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Chinese Communist Party International Liaison Department Minister Liu Jianchao at the State Department in Washington, US, on 12 January 2024. (Anna Rose Layden/Reuters)

Beyond the foreign ministry, Liu has extensive party and provincial experience that career diplomats like Ma Chaoxu lack. He was director of the International Cooperation Department of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, where he spearheaded China’s efforts to extradite corrupt Chinese officials who had fled overseas.

He was a key player in President Xi Jinping’s overall efforts to fight corruption. Some observers believe that Liu’s contribution helped him to earn a high degree of political trust and he is seen as capable of handling extremely sensitive negotiations with foreign governments.

Liu’s stint as director of the International Department since 2022 gave him a much broader canvas than the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection to engage foreign countries.

Liu was further exposed to political work at the provincial level and the dynamics involving central-local relations when he became a member of the Standing Committee of the Zhejiang Provincial Committee, Secretary of the Provincial Commission for Discipline Inspection, and Director of the Provincial Supervisory Committee for almost a year from 2017 to 2018.

Trust and support of President Xi

More significantly, Liu’s stint as director of the International Department since 2022 gave him a much broader canvas than the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection to engage foreign countries.

As director, Liu is responsible for building CPC’s ties with parties of various political stripes in many countries. The focus in many of these interactions is to share China’s development experience and tell the China story well so as to win over more supporters and partners, thereby extending Beijing’s international influence. In this role, Liu operates as the CCP’s de facto foreign minister.

Another factor in Liu’s favour is that he appears to have President Xi’s trust and support for the International Department to extend its reach into foreign affairs, which are normally under the government’s purview.

This is in line with the president’s call for the party to provide leadership in all matters. Liu made a high-profile visit to the US in January 2024, where he met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, principal deputy national security adviser Jon Finer, Democratic and Republican senators and representatives, San Francisco mayor London Breed and leading experts from various sectors including finance, industry and commerce, think tanks and the media.

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Chinese International Liaison Department Minister Liu Jianchao (fourth from right) meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington, DC, on 12 January 2024. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP)

Liu also spoke at the US Council on Foreign Relations and met United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres. During the visit, Liu effectively played the role of a Chinese foreign minister to further stabilise US-China relations following the Xi-Biden meeting in November 2023.

Separately, Liu was in attendance when Xi met Chinese envoys stationed abroad at a work meeting in Beijing in December 2023 and called on them to use international language and methods to tell the China story well.

Likely to keep foreign relations on an even keel

If Liu becomes foreign minister, he will likely focus on keeping US-China relations on an even keel and improving Beijing’s ties with other key partners like the EU and its individual members, and Australia.

He can also be expected to strengthen Beijing’s ties with Southeast Asia and ASEAN. As former ambassador to Indonesia, Liu oversaw the upgrade of China-Indonesia relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership during President Xi’s state visit to Indonesia in October 2013. President Xi was also the first foreign leader to address the Indonesian Parliament, where he unveiled the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Maritime Silk Road, two key pillars of his Belt and Road Initiative.

Liu can be expected to adhere to Xi’s call to build a diplomatic iron army loyal to the party.

The initial groundwork laid by Liu made possible the eventual launch of the Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Rail a decade later in 2023, which has been touted as a successful project of the Belt and Road Initiative.

However, Liu’s record as ambassador in the Philippines is mixed as he had to grapple with the fallout from the Manila hostage crisis where several Hong Kong tourists were killed by a disgruntled former policeman in August 2010 and the growing China-Philippine tensions in the South China Sea.

While Liu may improve China’s outreach efforts as foreign minister given his calm, unassuming demeanour and fluent English, there is a limit to how far he can go as he would need to be firm on matters concerning China’s national interests.

Liu can be expected to adhere to Xi’s call to build a diplomatic iron army loyal to the party. But his mandate would be to execute the thinking and ideas of President Xi, who retains the final say on foreign policy. In this regard, having a new foreign minister might engender a change in style, but little in substance when it comes to policy.

This article was first published in Fulcrum, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s blogsite.

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