Wang Yi, the return of China’s tough foreign minister

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Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop thought everything was going well at a meeting with Wang Yi in 2013, as her Chinese counterpart launched into an animated opening speech in Mandarin. But then the Australian ambassador pushed over a note saying: “This is going terribly badly.” 

Wang was publicly haranguing Bishop after Australia questioned Beijing’s establishment of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea. The pair then sat through a frosty diplomatic dinner, silently staring across the table. 

That episode, recounted by Bishop in later interviews, helped define Wang as the tough point man of a new, more assertive Chinese foreign policy under President Xi Jinping. Now, just months after leaving the foreign minister job, the 69-year-old Wang, a staunch nationalist described as a “trusted old hand”, has been called back. This time he faces an even tougher task. 

Wang was reappointed foreign minister after the once high-flying Xi favourite Qin Gang was suddenly removed from his post this week without explanation. Even by the opaque standards of China’s Communist party the Qin episode stands out. After a month-long absence, first ascribed to “health reasons” but later left unexplained, he was ousted by an emergency meeting of China’s rubber-stamp parliament in one of the highest profile disappearances of a senior cabinet member during Xi’s presidency. 

For Wang, who outranked Qin in the less high-profile role of the party’s head of foreign policy, the challenge now is to restore credibility to China’s diplomacy while juggling a hectic workload without his former colleague’s help.

Aside from handling rising geopolitical tensions, Wang will have to prepare for Xi’s possible attendance at several important gatherings including November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit in San Francisco where he might meet US President Joe Biden. 

“His real headache is how to manage some of these burning problems,” said Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, listing China’s strained ties with the US, Europe, Japan and others. “And to deal with those big summits.” 

Known as the “silver fox” because, unlike many older party cadres, he does not dye his hair, Wang first took over as foreign minister a decade ago, just after Xi took office. “Wang is a known quantity and not a political interloper like Qin Gang,” said Danny Russel, vice-president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute think-tank. “But he has over time become much less the personable and open-minded diplomat who I and others could talk with candidly . . . and now appears as a more politically correct champion of the China Dream and Xi Jinping thought”.

Born in Beijing in 1953, Wang was forced to labour on a farm during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Afterwards, he entered the foreign ministry, spent time at Washington’s Georgetown University and became ambassador to Japan. Although from a modest background, he married into elite diplomatic circles. His father-in-law, Qian Jiadong, was aide to the late leader Zhou Enlai. Zhou is famous for his dictum that “diplomatic personnel are the People’s Liberation Army in civilian clothing”, a message Wang seems to have absorbed. 

In his book China’s Civilian Army, Peter Martin describes a speech given by Wang in 2013 to fresh foreign ministry recruits. “Zhou Enlai will always be a model for diplomats,” he told the group. “A civilian army not only needs to maintain strict discipline and obedience to commands, but also needs . . . to serve the people like the PLA.”

In recent years, as the Trump administration stepped up moves to counter China, the foreign ministry under Wang responded with “wolf warrior” diplomacy — known for its brash and combative rhetoric. One former journalist who dealt with Wang said he practised “a somewhat more refined form of wolf warrior . . . a biting acerbic kind”. 

Wang Yi is a man of many faces. He has the ability for a serious and sustained discussion of regional and global affairs, but he is a very political animal too,” says Evan Medeiros of Georgetown University who dealt with him during his time as top China adviser to former US president Barack Obama.

“Europeans and Americans can’t distinguish between Chinese, Japanese and South Koreans,” Wang told a trilateral meeting between the three countries this month. “No matter how yellow our hair is dyed or how sharp we change our nose, we can’t become westerners. We should know where our roots are.”

Beyond the rhetoric, he now has his work cut out. China is trying to mend fences with Europe, which is suspicious of Beijing’s unwillingness to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Beijing and Washington are trying to revive dialogue. Wang was already the main interlocutor with US national security adviser Jake Sullivan. “It is a very important channel but both of them are super busy and Wang twice as busy as before Qin was purged,” says Russel.

Wang will also have to work with Xi to find himself a successor. He is already well past retirement age. 

As for Bishop, who is no longer in government, she said this week that Wang’s return was welcome. “I always had very professional dealings with him,” she told Australia’s National Press Club, before joking: “Although there is one occasion, but we won’t go into it.”,

Additional reporting by James Kynge in London and Edward White in Seoul

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