The 56-year-old Qin Gang, who became Chinese ambassador to the US in July 2021, was appointed to be China’s foreign minister on 30 December 2022. He is the shortest-serving PRC ambassador in Washington, and one of the youngest PRC foreign ministers after Zhou Enlai. The latter became the PRC’s first foreign minister in 1949 at the age of 51.
What does Qin’s appointment mean for China’s diplomacy? What challenges lie ahead for him?
Cementing relations with the developing world
Foreign ministers are chief implementers of Chinese foreign policy. The actual policies are made by the Central Foreign Affairs Commission (CFAC) headed by President Xi Jinping himself, with Wang Yi, Qin’s predecessor, being the director of CFAC’s General Office.
Since March 2018 Wang has concurrently been a state councilor, a position ranking only below vice-premiers and above ministers of various departments. Qin is of lower status in the political hierarchy. However, it is believed that he has the confidence of President Xi, so it is possible that he may enter the foreign policy decision-making inner circle in the near future.
While it is too early to tell what differences Qin will bring to China’s diplomacy, one can already discern some notable changes and continuities in Chinese foreign policy.
As he noted in a farewell op-ed in The Washington Post, Qin will continue to work to promote US-China relations. “I leave the United States more convinced that the door to China-US relations will remain open and cannot be closed” and “the future of the entire planet depends on a healthy and stable China-US relationship”. Indeed, managing relations with the US will remain a top priority for Qin.
Qin Gang started the new year by travelling to Africa, a practice that has been followed by Chinese foreign ministers for over 30 years.
Qin Gang started the new year by travelling to Africa, a practice that has been followed by Chinese foreign ministers for over 30 years. Qin’s trip from 9 to 16 January took him to Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, Benin and Egypt, consolidating China’s relations with African countries. While in Africa, Qin also categorically rejected accusations that Chinese loans to African countries created a “debt trap”, saying that China’s projects and China-Africa cooperation “have contributed to the development of Africa and the improvement of people’s livelihood”.
Interestingly, Qin made a technical stopover in Bangladesh on his way to Africa and met with Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen at a Dhaka airport. This is another sign that Qin will work to strengthen China’s relations with developing countries.
Qin also conducted a series of phone diplomacy as the new foreign minister, having spoken to his counterparts in the US, Russia, Pakistan, South Korea, among others. It is clear that “big power diplomacy” and “good neighbour diplomacy” will continue as key components of Chinese foreign policy.
Such notable continuities in Chinese diplomacy notwithstanding, there have also been some visible changes since Qin took office.
New directions and drawing red lines
First, Zhao Lijian, the unofficial poster child for China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy”, has been sidelined. Zhao was laterally transferred to become a deputy head of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs within the Chinese foreign ministry. Given his less prominent role now, this could be interpreted as a demotion for Zhao.
Xie is a moderate expert on the US. If he goes to Washington, it would be further evidence that Beijing is trying to dial back “wolf warrior diplomacy” and boost its international image.
Though Qin Gang himself is sometimes considered a “wolf warrior” and he has stood by Chinese diplomats for being firm in defending Chinese interests, it appears that he understands that “wolf warrior diplomacy” has contributed to tensions between China and other countries as well as China’s declining international image. Toning down the abrasive rhetoric marks a welcome adjustment in Chinese diplomacy.
Meanwhile, Xie Feng, currently a vice-minister of foreign affairs, is rumoured to be China’s next ambassador to Washington. Xie is a moderate expert on the US. If he goes to Washington, it would be further evidence that Beijing is trying to dial back “wolf warrior diplomacy” and boost its international image.
Second, while China is prepared to push forward the Russia-China relationship, it is dispelling the myth that the two countries are allies. During a phone call with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on 9 January, Qin said “China-Russia relations are based on non-alliance, non-confrontation and non-targeting of any third party”.
It is not the first time that Chinese officials have clarified the nature of China-Russia relations. For example, while emphasising “there is no ceiling for China-Russia cooperation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin used a similar expression at a news briefing on 31 March 2022, saying “the China-Russia relationship consists of non-alliance, non-confrontation and not targeting any third party”. However, that Qin clearly stated this during his first call as foreign minister with Lavrov is quite significant.
Qin’s emphasis on the “three ‘nons’” is a clear indication that while the China-Russia relationship has “no limits”, it has bottom lines.
During Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Beijing in early February 2022, China and Russia declared their relationship to have “no limits”. The “no limits” framing of the China-Russia relationship has hurt China’s image following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Despite Beijing’s assertion that it respects every country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and opposes war as a way to resolve international conflicts, China is perceived to be tacitly supporting Russia in the Russia-Ukraine war, hurting its global image and creating a wider gap with Western countries.
Qin’s emphasis on the “three ‘nons’” is a clear indication that while the China-Russia relationship has “no limits”, it has bottom lines. China is reportedly planning to reorient its foreign policy away from Moscow, as reported by the Financial Times, citing anonymous Chinese officials and regional experts. Qin’s latest comment on China-Russia relations seems to confirm this recalibration of Chinese foreign policy.
Relations with US most challenging
Looking ahead, despite Qin’s wish to improve US-China relations, the biggest challenge in Chinese foreign policy remains how to handle the US-China competition. A Republican-controlled US Congress with Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House has vowed to confront China head-on, and the Biden administration has strengthened security cooperation with US allies to counter and decouple with China, making improvement of US-China relations virtually impossible.
China aims for a multipolar world in which it can peacefully coexist with the US. However, competition is the dominant feature of US-China relations now, and the objective of “outcompeting” China is driving US policies towards China.
Most US allies trade more with China than with the US and many do not share the US approach of confronting China in a new Cold War. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to China in November 2022 suggests that Germany still prefers to engage China. China-Australia relations are also on the mend after deteriorating for a few years.
China’s poor handling of Covid and knee-jerk response to other countries’ entry rules may frustrate its effort to improve relations with the US and US allies.
It is in China’s interest to maintain good relations with key US allies if China wishes to break the US-led Western united front against China. US allies may also help mitigate tensions between Beijing and Washington. Unfortunately, China’s poor handling of Covid and knee-jerk response to other countries’ entry rules may frustrate its effort to improve relations with the US and US allies.
Some countries have adopted restrictions on visitors arriving from China as Covid cases rise in China after it ended the “zero-Covid policy” in December 2022 and lifted its travel bans in early January 2023. Dr Hans Kluge, head of the World Health Organization for Europe, has said that travel restrictions by European countries on visitors from China were “not unreasonable… while we are waiting for more detailed information” from China.
The Chinese foreign ministry has criticised countries with restrictive entry policies for being “discriminatory” towards the Chinese. China has temporarily stopped issuing short-term visas to South Koreans and Japanese. Though China asserts that these are reciprocal measures, such punitive actions are counterproductive and have unnecessarily added tensions and mistrust with these countries. Can Qin reverse this trend and handle the situation more skillfully?
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