China’s missed opportunity as Wang Yi stays put as Foreign Minister amid global diplomatic challenges

At China’s National People’s Congress, speculation arose about a new foreign minister, but senior diplomat Wang Yi retained his position. Despite Wang’s credibility, China’s global influence wanes, requiring a new envoy to rebuild goodwill. President Xi Jinping prioritises domestic stability amid escalating tensions. While Wang maintains stability, he echoes old foreign policy doctrines. The absence of a new minister reflects Xi’s domestic concerns, leaving Taiwan under increased scrutiny. Beijing’s hardened rhetoric suggests growing concern, potentially impacting Taiwan’s partners. In the long term, China risks becoming less influential and more insular.

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By Karishma Vaswani

The script at China’s National People’s Congress is pre-determined months before the event, but there had been speculation this week that Beijing might name a new foreign minister. Instead, it seems senior diplomat Wang Yi will continue in the role.

The world’s second-largest economy has missed a trick. While Wang is credible, highly respected and well known, China is increasingly losing friends and influence in the world, and needs a new envoy to reset the tone and work to create some goodwill. For now, it is clear that domestic stability is President Xi Jinping’s priority, even as tensions escalate across the region.

No surprise that among the foreign policy issues Wang highlighted at an annual press briefing in Beijing Thursday, the US, Taiwan and Russia were at the top of the list, along with relations in the South China Sea. 

That’s not to say the long-serving emissary isn’t doing a half-decent job. He has recently had tough talk for Europe, met with his counterpart in the US, and is expected to go to Australia soon in a sign of warmer relations there. Wang may bring a steady hand, but he’s also quick to call Washington out over its policies, particularly around China’s access to advanced chips. “The US has been devising various tactics to suppress China and keeps lengthening its unilateral sanctions list, reaching bewildering levels of unfathomable absurdity,” he said.

Although Wang is repeating a lot of the old foreign policy tropes from the Communist Party doctrine, and has yet to introduce fresh or new ideas, he is the picture of stability. He brings much-needed order to Xi’s chaotic inner circle after the previous foreign minister — Qin Gang — was unceremoniously, and mysteriously, removed just seven months into the job. The episode highlighted the secretive nature of the party’s inner workings, but also shone a glaring spotlight on Xi’s personnel choices, given Qin was his pick.

The lack of a new foreign minister also highlights where Xi’s prime concerns lie, says Drew Thompson, visiting senior research fellow with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “The domestic picture is the real priority, not foreign affairs — other countries cannot bring down the Communist Party. Only the Chinese people can do that.”

Social stability is the secret sauce that the success of the party is predicated on. The economic challenges facing China are acute, not least because they reflect the growing reality that it has lost its way. Indeed, projecting a strong and stable China to the outside world is part of the narrative that Xi needs to convince his people that he’s brought about a period of peace and prosperity, even if the reality on the ground feels somewhat different. 

Which is why Taiwan is always a key focus in these press conferences — although it’s not what Beijing would consider foreign affairs. China claims the island as its own, and Wang reiterated the long-standing policy on unification. He talked about the “separatists” — those Taiwanese who want a sovereign independent nation — as the most destructive elements in cross-strait relations, and said that history would punish those promoting independence. Talking tough on Taiwan is a way for Xi to build up his nationalist credentials, and a way to show strength while the economy around him flounders. 

That means that there are more dangerous times ahead for the island. This is not new rhetoric, but the tone of China’s annual policy report released this week hardened — an indication that Beijing might view a stronger Taiwanese identity with a greater degree of concern. “In the past party officials have said the two sides of Taiwan Strait are one big family, and Chinese people won’t fight with Chinese people,” Wen-Ti Sung, political scientist at the Australian National University’s Taiwan studies program, and fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, told me. “That language has been removed. Beijing is projecting an increased sense of threat and urgency.” 

That will no doubt put pressure on the new government in Taipei and its partners like the US and Japan. There is increasing resistance to Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea, too, which this week has been the backdrop for yet another dangerous collision between Chinese and Philippines vessels. A new foreign minister would go a long way to help explain Beijing’s global viewpoint. A possible candidate is thought to be the former ambassador to the Philippines and Indonesia, Liu Jianchao. The fact that he was not announced should tell you that the focus for Xi is what’s going on at home, not overseas.

That may make sense in the short term. In the long term, it will result in a less influential and more insular China. 

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