Beijing: China named a former ambassador to the United States as foreign minister on Friday, replacing veteran diplomat Li Zhaoxing at a time when Beijing’s diplomatic clout is increasingly in the spotlight.
Yang Jiechi, 56, previously a vice minister, comes from Shanghai and served in China’s embassy in Washington in the 1980s and 1990s, returning as ambassador there between 2001 and 2005.
A polished English speaker, Yang takes the helm at a time when China is generating ripples across Asia and beyond, and his experience in dealing with Washington could help smooth turbulence over trade, military modernisation and long-term ambitions.
“With such complex international developments at present, it’s all the more important for China and the US to strengthen cooperation and jointly respond to terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, regional conflicts and other challenges,” Yang said in a speech late last year, according to the foreign ministry’s Web site www.fmprc.gov.cn.
His appointment was unlikely to bring big changes to policy, which is set by the ruling Communist Party’s top-down leadership, analysts said.
“In China, the foreign minister’s role is limited, certainly compared to the US secretary of state. The minister implements more than he formulates policy,” said Yuan Tiecheng, a Beijing-based foreign policy researcher.
“He may help relations with the US simply because he knows how to deal with them and also with the Chinese bureaucracies.”
In the early 1970s, when China was isolated and consumed by Mao Zedong’s radical Cultural Revolution, Yang studied at the London School of Economics. There had been speculation in Beijing that a history of heart trouble would undermine his hopes for the top job.
The brief Xinhua report gave no explanation for Li’s retirement but, at 66, he was widely expected to step down before or during a national parliamentary session next year.
Yang may be a smooth policy salesman, but he is no stranger to sparring with Washington. As vice minister, he hauled in US diplomats to condemn Washington’s policies over Taiwan and Tibet.
As ambassador, Yang was “able to tread a fine line in both firmly defending China’s national interests and maintaining smooth and stable ties with the United States”, Xinhua reported.
He had recently arrived as ambassador when tensions spiralled over the crash of a Chinese fighter jet that collided with a US surveillance plane. The US crew landed on Hainan island in China’s far south and was freed by China after 11 tense days.
“But most of Yang’s experience with the United States has been when relations have been quite healthy,” said Shi Yinhong, a foreign policy expert at the People’s University of China.
“As a symbol, his appointment shows that China sees relations with the United States as crucial, no relationship matters more.”