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Xi positions key ally to steer Chinese diplomacy

Wang Qishan joins foreign affairs commission as US tensions mount

Vice President Wang Qishan, left, a longtime confidant of President Xi Jinping, looks set to take a central role in directing Chinese foreign policy. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

BEIJING -- President Xi Jinping has placed his new vice president, Wang Qishan, at the heart of China's foreign policy apparatus, a decision that could give Beijing an extra edge in delicate trade talks with the U.S.

Wang was listed among the officials attending Tuesday's inaugural meeting of the Foreign Affairs Commission in Chinese state media coverage on Wednesday. Xi, who heads the commission, delivered a speech calling for "enhancing the centralized and unified leadership of the [Communist Party] Central Committee over foreign affairs and opening up new prospects of major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics," state news agency Xinhua reported.

Formerly China's anti-graft czar, Wang left the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party's top decision-making body, at the twice-a-decade party congress in October, having passed the traditional retirement age of 68. But Wang, who enjoys a close friendship with Xi dating back decades, was elected vice president by the National People's Congress in March in an unusual return to power.

Membership in the Foreign Affairs Commission -- the party's top diplomatic policymaking body, created in a March reorganization -- gives Wang an official role in the party as well as the state. With Xi apparently moving toward extending his rule well beyond the usual 10 years, and Premier Li Keqiang's influence waning, Wang is poised to take center stage as a driving force in Chinese foreign policy.

Stabilizing relations with the U.S., currently soured by trade conflicts, will be Wang's first challenge. Speaking to American business leaders and former officials at a forum here on Tuesday, he stressed the importance of settling differences through dialogue. Sound China-U.S. economic and trade ties conform to the fundamental interests of both peoples, he said, according to Xinhua.

As vice premier under Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, Wang was a leader of the Chinese delegation at the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. He engineered Beijing's massive purchases of U.S. Treasurys after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the fall of 2008 and worked closely with then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to weather the ensuing global financial crisis. Wang is said to maintain a broad network of American connections.

Vice Premier Liu He, China's point man on U.S. trade negotiations, arrived in Washington on Tuesday for a second round of official talks aimed at averting a trade war. President Donald Trump has dangled the prospect of easing sanctions on Chinese smartphone maker ZTE, now hamstrung by a seven-year ban on transactions with American companies, while China has offered further steps to increase imports from the U.S.

Yet negotiations still look likely to drag on for some time. Washington has made demands that Beijing cannot accept, including scaling back or scrapping the Made in China 2025 plan for industrial modernization. Even some in China worry about whether Liu -- a career academic who lacks negotiating experience -- can handle the talks effectively.

China-watchers speculate that an impasse in the talks could prompt Xi to send Wang to Washington. The vice president, who is thoroughly familiar with U.S. strengths and weaknesses, would prove a far more formidable negotiating partner.

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