China’s new leaders have shuffled their foreign-affairs team. Relations with other big powers will soon be tested
Mar 23rd 2013 | BEIJING
(The Economist) – WITH only a single dissenter among nearly 3,000 delegates, on March 14th the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s legislature, vested Xi Jinping with the formal title of state president. He had already been made head of the Communist Party and of the armed forces in November. Now Mr Xi is ready for a new role as global statesman—and the world is wondering how he will act.
One of the few clues may be found in his decision to go to Moscow on March 22nd (he will continue to Africa, see article). At a time when the Americans are talking of reordering their security priorities with a so-called “pivot” towards Asia, some Chinese commentators have interpreted Mr Xi’s decision to visit Russia first as a gesture aimed at America. China, after all, sees the pivot as menacing, despite American efforts to persuade it otherwise.
First trips matter: leaders meet friends before those with whom they have trickier relations. China and Russia, antagonists a few decades ago, are now on remarkably good terms. President Vladimir Putin has been assiduous in cultivating Mr Xi. Both countries resent American global dominance, as well as Western intervention in others’ affairs, notably in Syria. And as a new report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out, with tensions between China and Japan rising alarmingly over island disputes, Mr Xi may want to reaffirm smooth relations on China’s long Russian flank.
Staying cordial with Russia is a priority for China. A Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s taught both countries how draining tensions can be along a border that today stretches more than 4,000km (2,500 miles). Yet for all their “strategic friendship”, relations are not as good as they could be. To Chinese chagrin, the Russians have supplied advanced weaponry to India and Vietnam, two countries that are not on stellar terms with China. From Russia’s perspective, whereas China was until recently a chief buyer of Russian arms, it has now become a chief competitor—often with copied Russian designs.
Energy also reveals the limits to Russian and Chinese cosiness. The two countries have bickered long and hard over China’s request for access to more of Russia’s oil and gas. Proposals to pipe natural gas from Russia to China have been stalled for years because of haggling over prices (see article). Hopes were raised last month when Gazprom, a Russian energy giant close to Mr Putin, said it would sign a gas deal with China by the end of the year. There have been false dawns before, though recent negotiations have been unusually intense.
Mr Xi is certainly fond of nationalist rhetoric. On March 17th, at the end of the 13-day annual session of the NPC, he repeated some favourite catchphrases. The country had to “strive to achieve the Chinese dream of the great renaissance of the Chinese nation”. The army issued a circular to troops promising to provide “robust support” for this endeavour. That will not reassure neighbours who worry about China’s growing assertiveness in disputed regional waters, and who turn to America for help.
However, Mr Xi is not intending to turn his back on America. President Barack Obama’s new treasury secretary, Jack Lew, visited Beijing this week. Mr Xi assured him that ties with America were of “great importance”. His trip marks a resumption of high-level contact between the two countries after a hiatus of several months, while America was absorbed by its presidential election and China by the handover to Mr Xi. The new secretary of state, John Kerry, is likely to visit Beijing in April.
These visits are a sign that both countries are anxious to resume normal business. They have urgent matters to discuss, from growing American concern about Chinese state-sponsored computer hacking to the perilous state of relations between China and Japan, which could draw in America if shots are ever fired.
A recent shuffle of China’s most senior diplomats suggests that Mr Xi is emphasising the management of prickly relations with America and Japan. At the NPC session, the foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, was promoted to state councillor, making him a senior adviser to Mr Xi on foreign affairs. Mr Yang has given the Americans tongue-lashings in the past. However, Michael Yahuda, a professor emeritus at the London School of Economics who taught Mr Yang in the 1970s, describes him as a “highly polished” diplomat who was well regarded in Washington during his service as China’s ambassador a decade ago. Mr Yang’s harsher tone in the past three years has matched that of higher-ups, and is in line with the “sharper and more nationalistic approach” of Mr Xi, says Mr Yahuda.
Mr Yang’s successor as foreign minister is Wang Yi, an Asia specialist who was China’s ambassador to Japan from 2004 to 2007. In Tokyo Mr Wang helped to heal relations after earlier bad blood. But today Sino-Japanese relations are much worse, with China challenging Japanese control of the Senkaku islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) in the East China Sea. To date, Mr Xi has shown no sign of wanting to wind down the confrontation.
The president’s rapid consolidation of power could mean that his foreign-policy proclivities will become evident more quickly than those of his two predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. At first they had to defer to their semi-retired elders. But as was the case under Mr Hu, few of the new 25-member Politburo appointed in November have foreign-affairs experience, and none apart from Mr Xi himself has been given a foreign-affairs portfolio. The foreign minister, as ever, is way down the Communist Party’s pecking order. Diplomatically, as in other areas abroad, China punches below its weight (see article). At a time of growing risks abroad, that is not all to the good.