The New Face of Chinese Diplomacy: Who Is Wang Yi?

Article excerpt

Wang Yi, Chinas newly-named foreign minister, has a reputation as a brilliant and urbane diplomat. He is also a wily negotiator with some tricks up his sleeve.

Ten years ago he was trying to persuade the Americans to sit down alone with the North Koreans for talks on Pyongyangs nuclear program, as North Korea wanted. Washington refused, and insisted that the Chinese be present.

After a day of fruitless to-ing and fro-ing in Beijing, Mr. Wang hosted a banquet for the three negotiating teams. Halfway through the dinner he and his deputy stepped out to the toilet, they said.

Over the next 10 minutes, one by one, all the Chinese diplomats slipped surreptitiously away from their banqueting tables. Before they knew it, US negotiators found they were in a de facto bilateral meeting with the North Koreans.

The Americans declined to talk about anything substantive, and Wangs ploy failed, according to Japanese author Yoichi Funabashi, who recounts the incident in his book The Peninsula Question.

But the sly maneuver illustrates what one acquaintance calls the subtlety and flexibility of Wangs approach to diplomacy.

His expertise, his judgment and his style will lend him authority, predicts Paul Evans, a professor of international relations at the University of British Columbia in Canada. He will be more than an implementer; he will be a shaper.

Unlike his two immediate predecessors at the head of the Foreign Ministry, Wang is not a US specialist, although he spent six months at Georgetown University in the late 1990s and speaks good English.

He speaks Japanese, however, like a native, according to people who know him well. Wang has spent his career in Asia and is one of Chinas foremost experts on Beijings major regional rival, Japan, with whom Beijing is currently locked in a fierce territorial dispute over a group of islands in the East China Sea.

It is a signal to the region that they are putting an Asia specialist in the job, says Professor Evans.

His knowledge of Japan is deep, but he is not necessarily soft on Japan, adds Evans, who once hosted Wang at a dinner in his home, and has met him often since. He is a firm Chinese nationalist.

'Learning from the peasantry'

Like many of his generation now rising to the top of Chinese politics, Wang was a sent down youth, spending eight years during the Cultural Revolution working on a farm in northeastern China, learning from the peasantry.

He did not waste his time, recalls Wang Xiaoping, a classmate of Wang Yis at university in Beijing where the two studied Japanese. …