BEIJING – Chinese President Xi Jinping is increasingly turning to friend and trusted confidant Wang Qishan to help guide the country’s foreign relations as he prepares for a potentially bruising trade fight with the U.S. and competition for leadership in Asia.
The 69-year-old Wang was appointed China’s vice president in March, but exercises outsized influence in the historically symbolic position despite standing down from the ruling Communist Party’s leading body due to age restrictions.
Here’s a look at Wang’s new role, what he brings to the job, China’s most pressing foreign policy challenges, and the ways Wang and Xi are addressing them:
NEW FOREIGN POLICY ROLE
The latest sign of Wang’s sway with the president came this week when he was named a member of Xi’s Foreign Affairs Commission, a Communist Party group tasked with promoting “major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.” That refers to a broad Xi concept that calls for China to be more proactive in addressing global problems and asserting its interests in international institutions.
Wang, who has previously served as a key trade negotiator with the United States, will be relied on to tackle the trade dispute with the U.S., in which both sides have exchanged threats to impose tens of billions of dollars in tariffs.
Among Xi’s advisers, Wang appears to hold a special place dating from the two men’s time working as farm laborers during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. Then-leader Mao Zedong had ordered educated youth from politically influential families to be sent to the countryside to learn from the peasantry.
As Xi’s close confidant, Wang’s status rises above those of both Foreign Minister Wang Yi and senior foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi, said Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
Xi, however, will continue to call the shots, while “Wang’s role could be to turn Xi’s preferences into coherent policies,” Zhang said.
Together with economic czar Liu He, Wang is “for sure one of Xi’s allies with the more overseas visibility,” said Jerome Doyon, associate policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris.
LONG LIST OF CONTACTS
In his new role, Wang is expected to tap into a long list of relationships with foreign luminaries built over the course of decades in office. These include former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and the ex-president of Goldman Sachs, John Thornton.
Paulson, who knew Wang for 15 years while working at Goldman Sachs, referred to him in his 2015 book “Dealing with China,” saying the then-vice premier told him at a U.S.-China dialogue in 2008, when economic concerns were rising, that “We aren’t sure we should be learning from you anymore.”
Wang is known for his wit and broad knowledge of economics and world affairs, derived in part from his professional roots as a provincial museum historian. That’s led many foreign visitors to seek his counsel. Since the beginning of this year, he is on record as having met with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the foreign ministers of Pakistan, Nepal, India and the Philippines.
In recent years, Wang has become best known for enforcing Xi’s sweeping crackdown on corruption and political disloyalty that has seen some 1.5 million party members punished, including life sentences for former top officials.
Yet, it’s his knowledge of the U.S. and American economy that seem to give him special cache with a potential trade war brewing.
Meeting a delegation of American business leaders and former officials earlier this week, he took the long view of U.S. relations with China, saying that “despite winds and rain, they have always advanced.”
“The two sides need to deep their understanding, boost confidence and solve their differences through dialogue and negotiations,” he was quoted as saying by state broadcaster CCTV.
NORTH KOREA, THE SOUTH CHINA SEA AND OTHER CHALLENGES
Wang takes a leading role as China works to ensure that its interests are maintained during planned talks next month between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. China is North Korea’s most important ally and leading economic partner.
And while events on the Korean Peninsula can be tricky to predict, China is set to keep extending control over the South China Sea, a campaign that some say already has game-changing results.
Having built military installations on seven man-made islands, China is “now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,” Adm. Phil Davidson, the new head of the U.S. Pacific Command, wrote in recent testimony to Congress.
China also vies with Japan for control of East China Sea islands and underwater resources and has upped its threats to attack self-governing Taiwan, which it claims as its own territory.