The diplomat, the troubleshooter

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 6, 2013

IF MR Wang Yi's university classmate had been more persuasive, he would have been running factories rather then tending to the nation's diplomatic affairs.

Lawyer Wang Xiaoping, the new Chinese Foreign Minister's classmate at the Beijing International Studies University, thought Mr Wang would be better off working as a factory manager, given his leadership instincts and outspoken nature.

Their class then was inspired by a TV drama about the impact of factory managers amid China's economic reforms and opening up in the early 1980s.

"The foreign ministry is a place that requires utmost obedience and submission to authority. I thought it was a real pity for Wang Yi to work in the foreign ministry and that his talent would be buried," said Mr Wang Xiaoping in a 2004 news report.

He could not be more wrong about the new Foreign Minister, who has been one of China's fastest-rising diplomats and regarded as one of its best troubleshooters.

China is now banking on Mr Wang, 59, whose previous diplomatic roles have seen improved ties with Japan and Taiwan, to do the same for its troubled relations with several South-east Asian countries and to improve Beijing's standing in the region.

Mr Wang made his maiden overseas trip last week to four Asean states - Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei - after taking on his new role in March.

He told reporters yesterday, before wrapping up the five-day visit, that China, with a new leadership, "places Asean at a prioritised position in its relations with surrounding neighbours", state news agency Xinhua reported.

The issue of territorial disputes over several South China Sea islands is the latest challenge for Mr Wang, who joined the foreign service in 1982 after graduating with a major in Japanese.

He was quickly noticed for his intellect, analytical and research ability, language skills, creative negotiation tactics and work ethic.

He reportedly drafted speeches for former Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang during his visit to Japan in 1983 that were so good they were edited sparingly by Hu.

In 19 years, Mr Wang went from being an entry-level desk officer in the Asia directorate to a vice-foreign minister in 2001, the youngest to hold the post then. He served at the Chinese embassy in Japan (1989-1994), helmed the ministry's Asia directorate (1995-1998), and also its research department (1998-2001).

Despite his pedigreed background as the son-in-law of Mr Qian Jiadong, a personal assistant to the late premier and China's first foreign minister Zhou Enlai, Mr Wang is widely deemed to have done it all on his own steam.

Singapore-based observer Li Mingjiang, a former Xinhua news agency reporter, said: "My impression of him was that he was very attentive to details and quite easy-going. He has always been regarded as a very capable and competent diplomat by staff at the ministry and perhaps by regional diplomats as well."

The world really took notice of Mr Wang in 2003, when the Beijing native was appointed China's point man for the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis. Many were impressed when it was revealed later that Mr Wang had taken on the job despite having just gone through surgery to remove a tumour. His career has soared since, and has earned him a reputation as a "firefighter".

From 2004 to 2007, as China's envoy to Japan, he oversaw the dramatic turnaround in bilateral ties, which had soured after then Japanese premier Junichiro Koizumi's annual visits to the Yasukuni war shrine from 2001 to 2006. When Mr Wang left the post, his resume included then Japanese premier Shinzo Abe's landmark visit to China in October 2006 and former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao's Japan visit in April 2007.

From 2008 till this March, as Taiwan Affairs Office head, he presided over a blossoming in cross-strait ties, though it helped that Taiwan President Ma Ying- jeou is China-friendly, unlike his independence-leaning predecessor.

Now, as Foreign Minister, Mr Wang has to handle China's diplomatic headaches, ranging from a belligerent North Korea to rocky Sino-Japanese relations, and ties with South-east Asia.

But how much personal impact Mr Wang can make is debatable.

The role of a Chinese foreign minister is more an executor of policies set by higher-ranked officials like State Councillor Yang Jiechi, Communist Party chief Xi Jinping, and other stakeholders like the People's Liberation Army and other government ministries.

Thus, Mr Wang will have to offer his views with circumspection, as he is new to the job and has been out of the foreign ministry system since 2008, said retired US diplomat Don Keyser. "He is probably still sorting out his personal relationships and ensuring he doesn't step on the wrong toes," said Mr Keyser, adding that some in diplomatic circles think his troubleshooter reputation is overstated.

Also, Prof Li thinks the Chinese leadership's more assertive actions to protect China's territorial sovereignty and maritime interests may pose challenges to Mr Wang, especially in handling territorial disputes with neighbours.

"As the domestic environment in China increasingly does not support any compromise, it will be very difficult for Mr Wang to pursue a moderate policy on these contentious disputes," he said.

Some believe Mr Wang's personal traits could make a difference. "The Chinese foreign minister's voice can be heard if his work is marked by integrity, professionalism and common sense," said former Asean secretary-general Rodolfo Severino, who helmed the regional bloc between 1998 and 2002 and worked with Mr Wang in the 1990s.

"I have known Wang Yi - since he was a career diplomat in charge of Asian affairs in China's foreign ministry - to be possessing all these characteristics."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 6, 2013 

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