Recent top-level changes at China’s foreign ministry are unlikely to affect Beijing’s foreign policy orientation towards Southeast Asia. The region remains important in light of China’s difficult relationship with the United States and other key countries.
Two unprecedented high-level personnel changes at China’s foreign ministry have highlighted the lack of organisational autonomy at the agency. Despite the changes, however, China’s foreign policy, and in particular its approach to Southeast Asia, will remain largely unchanged.
On 25 July, it was announced that Qin Gang was removed as foreign minister. Barely six months on the job and having disappeared for a month, he is now the shortest-serving foreign minister. The second is Wang Yi’s re-appointment as foreign minister. He was foreign minister for almost 10 years before relinquishing his post to Qin Gang. At 69 years old and expected to retire after his current term as Head of the Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission ends, Wang Yi is the first senior-level individual to be re-appointed to his previous position.
The Chinese foreign ministry has been ambiguous about the causes of Qin Gang’s disappearance. It had said that he is unwell, has denied knowledge of extra-marital rumours surrounding him, and referred questions about his whereabouts to the foreign ministry website. The portal has since erased almost all traces of Qin Gang as the foreign minister. This underscores the ministry’s lack of organisational autonomy. They reflect the peculiarities of a Party-controlled or, as what others have described, a one-man centralised political system.
The lack of information on Qin Gang’s whereabouts and the opaqueness of how senior government officials are appointed or removed raises questions about China’s system of governance. Having lifted 800 million people out of poverty, a remarkable feat for a developing country, China’s next goal is to become a modern socialist country by 2035 by carrying out reforms, including improving the country’s system and capacity for governance. To do this, Beijing would need not only capable and visionary leaders but also strong institutions. Qin Gang’s meteoric rise, which was widely perceived as being due to his close ties to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and his abrupt removal seem to run counter to the drive to improve governance. This development also thwarts Beijing’s wish to be better understood by the outside world and undercut efforts to hold up its development model as an inspiration for other countries.
Notwithstanding, China’s Southeast Asia policy is likely to stay the course. The Chinese foreign ministry essentially implements the foreign policy direction and principles set by the Party. Southeast Asia has been and will continue to be a key area of focus for China. The region, with a diverse group of countries friendly to China, is amendable to growing their ties with Beijing. Likewise, Beijing is keen to strengthen relations with these countries. When Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. visited China in January 2023, Chinese state media highlighted that this was Marcos’ first visit to a non-ASEAN country and the first foreign leader President Xi Jinping hosted in Beijing in the year.
The unpredictable U.S.-China relationship has further elevated Southeast Asia’s importance to China. Wang Yi, in his capacity as Director of the Party’s Foreign Affairs Commission, called on ASEAN to maintain its strategic autonomy when he met ASEAN’s Secretary General Kao Kim Hourn in Beijing in March 2023. Such calls have become more frequent in light of NATO’s efforts to strengthen dialogue with friendly countries in the Asia-Pacific and the possibility of AUKUS expanding to include more partners.
Will Wang Yi, who currently wears three hats, i.e., Director of the Party’s Foreign Affairs Commission, politburo member and foreign minister, have a stronger hand and thus be more effective in delivering foreign policy outcomes for China? The example of Qian Qichen, who was foreign minister (1988–1998), and concurrently held two other key appointments, i.e., State Councillor (1991–1993) then Vice Premier (1993–2003), and Politburo member (1992–2002), suggests that there is such a possibility.
Qian Qichen was known for his foreign policy breakthroughs such as China establishing diplomatic ties with Indonesia and Singapore (1990), participating as a guest at the 24th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (1991), joining APEC (1993), regaining sovereignty over Hong Kong (1997), and laying the groundwork for Macau’s subsequent handover (1999). These achievements were even more impressive as China was then ostracised by the West over the 1989 Tiananmen incident. With Wang Yi wearing three hats, China’s foreign policy will likely be more coherent and decisive as he will have the clout to drive the foreign ministry’s initiatives. Undoubtedly, Wang Yi’s effectiveness will also depend on how well he can execute the ideas and thinking of Chinese President Xi Jinping on foreign policy. But Wang Yi could be a transitional figure given his age. This will limit his ability to deliver foreign policy outcomes for China.
While there could occasionally be tough talk, treading a friendlier tone has become urgent as China seeks to attract more foreign investments and boost exports to shore up its sluggish economy. As Beijing seeks out more friends, Southeast Asia can work with China to shape a more sustainable longer-term relationship based on mutual respect and interests.
In terms of years of service and credentials, Wang Yi is more experienced and familiar with Asian affairs than Qin Gang. His return can be seen as restoring stability in the foreign ministry and enabling China to press ahead with a full diplomatic agenda of key upcoming events like the Third Belt and Road Forum and a possible trip by President Xi Jinping to the United States for the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting.
Beijing faces an ever-challenging external environment with countries labelling China a systemic rival and planning to withdraw from the Belt and Road Initiative. A seasoned diplomat but also a known wolf warrior, Wang Yi will now need to strike a balance between being aggressive in standing up for China’s interests and improving relations with key players such as the United States and individual European countries. While there could occasionally be tough talk, treading a friendlier tone has become urgent as China seeks to attract more foreign investments and boost exports to shore up its sluggish economy. As Beijing seeks out more friends, Southeast Asia can work with China to shape a more sustainable longer-term relationship based on mutual respect and interests.
Lye Liang Fook is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. He was previously Research Fellow and Assistant Director at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore.