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A US-Friendly "Tiger" As Chinese Foreign Minister

As the head of the US Liaison Office in Beijing between 1974 and 1976, Mr.George H.W. Bush, the father of the present US President, had a young Chinese, in his 20s, who was very fluent in the English language, working as his interpreter. He was a low-profile and shy, but friendly type and got along well with Mr.Bush. The latter liked him immensely and used to call him affectionately as “Tiger”.

2. This young Chinese “Tiger’ has since gone places and was appointed on April 27,2007, as the new Foreign Minister of China by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee . His name is Mr.Yang Jiechi.

3. Mr. Yang, who is 57, has taken over from Mr.Li Zhaoxing, 66, who had served as the Foreign Minister since 2003. It was generally expected that Mr.Li, who had already crossed the age of 65 at which Chinese Ministers normally retire, would be replaced before the end of this year.

4. Since the beginning of this year, there was speculation in the diplomatic circles in Beijing as to who would replace Mr.Li. Three names figured in the speculation—- the Chinese Permanent Representative to the United Nations Mr.Wang Guangya, the Chinese Ambassador to Japan, Mr. Wang Yi, and Mr.Yang, who was the Chinese Ambassador to the US from 2001 to 2005 before taking over as the Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs.

5. The fact that the President Mr. Hu Jintao and the Chinese Communist Party leadership chose an expert on Sino-US relations as the new Foreign Minister in preference to an expert on Sino-Japanese relations and another in multilateral diplomacy is an indicator of the importance attached by the Chinese leadership to China’s relations with the US. Traditionally, three issues relating to the US have been of perennial concern to China in its relations with the US—- Washington’s Taiwan policy and its military supply relationship with Taiwan, US complaints and concerns relating to China’s military modernisation programme and the US complaints relating to the trade imbalance in favour of China.

6. In recent months, other points of divergence have emerged. These relate to China’s support to the Sudan and its opposition to any UN action against the Sudanese Government for its alleged human rights violations in the Darfur region, China’s aggressive oil diplomacy, particularly in Africa, and its consequent support to what the US views as repressive regimes in Africa in return for their oil and gas and the Chinese hobnobbing with the Government of Venezuela as part of its oil diplomacy. If these divergences have so far not been allowed to embitter the bilateral relations, it is largely due to what the US views as the constructive role being played by China in US attempts to de-nuclearise North Korea. On its side, the Chinese leadership has been concerned over the attempts being made by some human rights activists and organisations in the US to embarrass China before next year’s Beijing Olympics by exploiting issues such as the Chinese policies on the Darfur issue.

7. The Chinese leadership expects that the understanding which Mr.Yang has of the US and insights drawn from his long association with Sino-US relations would enable him to keep these divergences under control and prevent them from creating bitterness in the bilateral relations with the US. Greater sophistication in the conduct of political, economic and oil diplomacy in order to promote Chinese national interests without tarnishing the image of China and without creating undue concerns about Chinese intentions and objectives has been given priority by Mr.Hu Jintao as part of his dual policy of promoting harmony and stability in international relations. The present Chinese leadership also thinks that harmony and stability in Sino-US relations is a sine quo non of harmony and stability in the wider world.

8. The Chinese foreign policy is traditionally laid down by the collective party leadership. The role of the Foreign Minister in policy-making is, therefore, limited. Where a Foreign Minister shows his style and imparts his stamp is in the execution of the policy as laid down by the Party leadership. With his considerable understanding of the US, his insights into the working of the American system and mindset and his exposure to the Western world, Mr.Yang is expected to implement the policies laid down by the party in relation to the US with greater finesse than his predecessors in the past.

9. Firmness without rhetoric or confrontation and flexibility without yielding on fundamental principles are expected to be the defining characteristics of his stewardship of the Foreign Office. He has already imparted his stamp to the policy on the Darfur issue—- a demonstration of a greater Chinese sensitivity to the concerns of the international community over the human rights situation in that region while sticking to the traditional Chinese policy of no interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

10. Mr.Yang’s bio-data is given below:

Born in Shanghai in May 1950. Obtained the Bachelor’s degree in the local university.

1973-1975: Studied at the London School of Economics.

1975-1983 Staff member, Department of Translation and Interpretation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beijing. It was in that capacity that he was attached to Mr.Bush.

1983-1987 Second Secretary, First Secretary and then Counsellor, Chinese Embassy,Washington DC

1987-1990 Counsellor and Director, Department of Translation and Interpretation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beijing.

1990-1993 Counsellor and Director, and then Deputy Director-General, Department of North American and Oceanian Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beijing.

1993-1995 Minister, Chinese Embassy,Washington DC.

1995-1998 Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs, Beijing.

1998-2001 Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Beijing.

2001-2005 Ambassador to the US.

Since 2005- Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs,Beijing. (21-5-07)

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. Also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: itschen36@gmail.com )

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