The back room calculations adding up to China’s next envoy to the US


May 03, 2021


  • Cui Tiankai’s successor will need to reflect Beijing’s global ambitions while navigating its deepening feud with Washington
  • Qin Gang has been tipped for the position but he was previously not considered a front runner

There have been delays in China’s diplomatic appointments to the United States. Photo: Handout


By Shi Jiangtao | South China Morning Post


At 68, Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States is well past the traditional retirement age.

He has held the all-important post for an unusually long stint of eight years and his replacement is seen as overdue.

Cui is part of an ageing foreign policy team that has stayed in place as the country has struggled to reshuffle its diplomatic corps to reflect the country’s global ambitions amid its deepening feud with Western countries.

The delays in key personnel appointments have exacerbated China’s predicament in dealing with unprecedented international pushback in the post-coronavirus world, and with the deterioration of its relations with the United States and its allies, observers warn.

But over the past few months, Beijing appears to have put the overhaul on the front burner, making new appointments in the top ranks of the diplomatic service, including three top overseas posts that have the same protocol rank as deputy cabinet ministers, such as its ambassador to Britain.

Next, Beijing is poised to name a new envoy for its most important overseas posting. According to several sources with knowledge of the matter, Cui is expected to be replaced by foreign vice-minister Qin Gang.

If confirmed, Qin’s appointment, first reported by The Wall Street Journal on April 20, would come as a major surprise to many, including government insiders. While speculation has been rife for years about Cui’s imminent retirement, Qin was not previously considered as a front runner in the race to succeed him.

It remains unclear when Beijing would officially make it public. Appointments of new ambassadors are usually unveiled weeks after the reshuffle occurs. And Beijing is unlikely to unveil its pick for the job before US President Joe Biden formally names his new ambassador to China, according to analysts.

Sources describe Qin, who is responsible for European affairs while overseeing information and state protocol matters, as “a dark horse” for the job in a vetting process that had been under way for months. His lack of direct involvement in managing American affairs or experience in the US had been seen as a key disadvantage.

“We are at a time of unprecedented uncertainty and it’s true not just in terms of the external environment [China is facing],” said a diplomatic source who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We used to have much greater predictability and certainty when it comes to who’s next in line to take over a senior position. That’s no longer the case. Few people know what’s exactly going on [in terms of personnel issues].”

Gu Su, a political scientist at Nanjing University, said such an appointment would be highly unusual. “It [would be] a major departure from past precedents. Despite the much-criticised lack of transparency, there were some vague, established criteria in finding replacements for top diplomats,” he said, citing various factors such as age, seniority of rank, and specialities. “It is a total surprise, with no clear succession arrangements that we know of.”

Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Centre in Washington, said Qin’s appointment would be “unprecedented”, given that he has not been an ambassador before and has not specialised in US affairs.

“But in the foreign policy circle, there is also the saying that people who have specialised in one country or region tend to develop emotional attachment and bias in favour of that country. That’s why diplomats rotate so much,” she said.

The speculation around Qin has left pundits and professional diplomats scratching their heads as to why he has been tipped to get the job ahead of contenders such as deputy foreign ministers Ma Zhaoxu, Le Yucheng and Xie Feng. Another leading candidate, former vice-minister Zheng Zeguang, was assigned to London as China’s ambassador to Britain in a surprise move late last year.

While the other four candidates are about two years older than the 55-year-old Qin, all are at the vice-ministerial level and are believed to be “capable and qualified”. The differences, according to Yun Sun, lie in their background and specialities.

Le, a Russia expert and a former ambassador to India, is one of the rising stars in China’s diplomatic service after a stint as deputy to Yang Jiechi, President Xi Jinping’s top foreign policy aide, at the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs. He is expected to be promoted to executive deputy foreign minister, a full minister position, which would make him unfit for the vice-ministerial Washington job.

Zheng, a protégé of Yang, is known for his extensive experience in US affairs since the 1990s, and was once considered Cui’s most likely successor. As vice-minister in charge of US affairs, he oversaw the worst downward spiral in bilateral ties under former president Donald Trump. He also served as the second-ranking diplomat at the Chinese embassy in Washington.

Ma, a foreign ministry spokesman and China’s top envoy to the United Nations in New York and Geneva, was also considered as a front runner for the Washington position.

Despite speculation about him winning the post, sources said Xie, another US expert who just took over Zheng’s portfolio after wrapping up his stint as the ministry’s top representative in Hong Kong earlier this year, did not stand much chance in the race.

Like Ma, Qin served as the ministry spokesman and the head of the information department. His steady rise through the diplomatic ranks coincided with China’s rapid ascendance as a rising power and a major shift towards diplomatic assertiveness in the Xi era. His career was mainly linked to European affairs, especially Beijing’s relations with London, where he served three times in the Chinese mission, including as minister, the embassy’s second-ranking official.

His career really took off in 2014 when he was transferred to head the ministry’s protocol department, which is in charge of overseeing protocol details for all the external events involving top leaders, especially Xi. He appeared to have been rewarded for his dedicated service close to the leadership when he was promoted in 2017 to assistant foreign minister and again the next year to deputy foreign minister.

Qin is also considered to be part of a new generation of diplomats who do not shy away from contentious issues.

“In terms of style, that might be a very significant factor [for his promotion],” said Yun Sun, noting that Qin was nicknamed “a fighter” when he was a spokesman. “If that is the style he will continue, it fits well with the current prevailing norm Wolf Warrior diplomacy’,” she said.

Steve Tsang, director of the London-based SOAS China Institute, said Qin’s promotion to the all-important position would show that he was the one whom Xi trusted.

“It looks like his credential as a loyalist to Xi takes precedence over other qualifications for the position in Washington. It also seems to reflect that Xi is more interested in getting someone whom he trusts than someone who has an established record to be ambassador to the US,” he said.

“Given that China’s policy towards the US will be determined by Xi, it may appear to Xi and his close advisers that it is more important to have someone Xi trusts than an experienced America hand to take charge of the embassy.”

Another explanation for Qin’s possible selection is peer rivalry and internal competition within the foreign policy establishment, especially among the country’s top diplomats, according to a renowned diplomatic analyst who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

“It is an open secret that China’s top diplomats do not see eye to eye with each other on many issues, particularly those concerning personnel arrangements. It is plausible that other candidates who have factional ties may have fallen victim to internal rivalry,” he said.

Analysts agreed that given Qin’s relatively young age, his promotion to the ambassadorship in the US would be a future-oriented move that could pave the way for his further elevation, with the generational reshuffle of top diplomats in less than two years.

“The appointment of the top overseas posting is likely to be part of personnel arrangements in the lead-up to the five-yearly Communist Party Congress next year and the sweeping governmental reshuffle in two years’ time,” said Pang Zhongying, an international affairs expert at Ocean University of China.

Huang Jing, dean of the Institute of International and Regional Studies at Beijing Language and Culture University, said Qin’s relative inexperience in US affairs could actually help him.

“He is relatively unknown to Americans, which means not many people dislike him. That would make him an acceptable choice,” he said. “Both Biden and Xi want to stabilise bilateral ties, to focus on thorny domestic issues in their own countries. The new ambassadors would be tasked with arresting the precipitous decline in bilateral ties.”

But other analysts were rather pessimistic about the role the new ambassador could play, with US-China relations undergoing structural shift in the post-engagement era and China’s diplomatic decision-making becoming more centralised in the intensifying superpower rivalry.

“With US-China relations being affected by forces beyond an individual’s control, I doubt that the next Chinese ambassador to the US is likely to play a decisive role anyway,” Tsang said.

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