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Foreign Policy

On Ambassador Qin Gang’s Balancing Act

Sep 03, 2021
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

Ambassador Qin Gang recently replaced the long-serving Cui Tiankai as China’s top representative in the United States. Qin Gang had previously served as the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, having risen through the ranks of the Foreign Ministry and serving an extended stint as Spokesperson from 2005 to 2010. 

Known to many for his pragmatism, amicability, and willingness to engage in closed-room conversations, Qin possesses a trait that is rare amongst many other diplomats – access to and a robust understanding of the needs and preferences of the upper echelons of Chinese politics. His ability to interpret and implement the Politburo’s decisions would be vital – as well as tested – as he navigates the precipitously hostile political landscape in Washington D.C. Indeed, one may reasonably characterise the task ahead as a precarious balancing act. 

On one hand, Qin must repair the frazzled relations between the U.S. and China – animosity that has accumulated over recent years, in response to deeply rooted economic anxieties in America concerning China’s astronomical ascent, the increasingly bellicose and confrontational rhetoric adopted by Chinese and American diplomats alike, as well as allegations concerning China’s ostensible role in the COVID-19 pandemic and human rights abuses. Much of these flashpoints have paved the way for rapidly declining trust, dwindling civil society-to-civil society and government-to-government exchanges, and considerable mutual hardening in stances amongst senior leaders in Zhongnanhai and the White House. In conjunction with his recently appointed counterpart (Ambassador Nicholas Burns) – in Beijing, Ambassador Qin must find a way to engage with the challenges, criticisms, and opposition from the American establishment, to assuage worries over an excessively expansionist and aggressive China amongst the American public, whilst ensuring that he successfully upholds the core interests of China. 

He has – thus far – appeared to have performed reasonably well. In a widely circulated Tweet on America’s ongoing resurgence of COVID (under the Delta variant), he has asked – perhaps rhetorically, perhaps spontaneously – “How about our two countries [China and the U.S.] work together on solutions, e.g. more effective vaccines and helping other countries?” The conciliatory rhetoric there both highlights China’s willingness and commitment to greater leadership roles as a global power, as well as openness to collaboration with America on issues of mutual concern, including public health challenges and tackling climate change. 

On the latter, Qin’s highlighting of China’s positive track record in another Tweet – “new records” in production of new energy vehicles – as opposed to detracting from and criticising America’s approach to emissions curbing, offers a refreshing departure from the more bellicose comments made by some of his peers at the Foreign Ministry, concerning the “environmental damage” inflicted by the United States. This is not to say that calling out American inconsistencies and inadequacies should not be an imperative – but that the tone and framing of such criticisms could be substantially more constructive. As The Guardianputs it, Qin Gang “struck a conciliatory tone in his debut press conference upon arrival in Washington DC”. 

Yet on the other hand, Qin must also be mindful of two critical facts. Firstly, conflicts between Chinese and Western interests – whilst exaggerated – are increasingly real, in two senses: across the world, liberal democracies have been compelled by domestic populism and rampant Sinophobia to shift towards a more hawkish and trenchant stance towards China; leading the pack, of course, is America. Furthermore, as China continues to amass economic influence and presence, it is likely that the unipolar world order would inevitably transition towards a multipolar one – this move certainly would ruffle many feathers, as well as upset vested interests in positions of power. From Beijing’s perspective, Qin must be willing to stand up and speak for Chinese economic interests on American soil, on fronts ranging from lifting the ongoing tariffs and protecting the interests of Chinese citizens residing abroad, to refuting allegations concerning China’s domestic affairs. To do so – without inducing unnecessary offense or resentment – requires Qin to be artful and precise in his messaging, as well as dexterous in his means of communication. 

Furthermore, the Chinese diplomat must also reckon with the increasingly vocal and pronounced nationalistic sentiments in his home country, as netizens and civil society actors alike rally behind a more assertive, emboldened China. The rise of defensive nationalism – in response to what the Chinese public perceives to be neo-colonialist impositions – and revanchist nationalism – in relation to the country’s claims to and over disputed territories, have inevitably caused the Foreign Ministry to shift towards drawing and sticking to conspicuous trench lines. Not only does Qin answer to the Politburo and senior advisors on foreign affairs, he must also answer to the precipitously powerful crowd back home. 

Satisfying any one of the above prerogatives should not be a particularly Herculean task. Satisfying all of them at once – and then some, however – is incredibly difficult. Days before his departure for America, the veteran diplomat paid a visit to the Jin Jiang Hotel Auditorium – where the Sino-U.S. Joint Communique was issued during Nixon’s monumental 1972 visit to China, one that had unthawed a relationship previously “frozen” by Cold War tensions. One would hope that Ambassador Qin could channel some of the diplomatic tactfulness embodied by Premier Zhou Enlai in his facilitation of that seminal visit – and bring about some much-needed reset to U.S.-China relations. The world needs it. 

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