Meet China’s New Foreign-Policy Team

Is Beijing using its latest appointments to send a message to Washington?

HONG KONG — As the United States pivots to Asia, lining up allies against China's rise, Beijing is pivoting right back, boosting its diplomatic offensive in the Asia Pacific by putting together a new foreign-policy team consisting of U.S. and regional specialists.

While the new appointments won't be formally announced by the National People's Congress, China's parliament, until mid-March, two senior party sources in Beijing have confirmed promotions for veteran diplomats Yang Jiechi, Wang Yi, and Cui Tiankai. Together, the appointments suggest that China wants to improve the optics of its relationship with the United States, if not the substance.

Yang, having run the Foreign Ministry for five years, will be promoted to State Councilor, one rung below vice premier. The 62-year-old fluent English speaker and former ambassador to the United States is expected to focus on big-picture strategies, including new thinking that will bolster China's influence in the key Asia-Pacific theater.

Day-to-day implementation of foreign policy will be in the hands of Foreign Minister-designate Wang Yi, 59, who spent his entire career at that ministry (except for the past five years, when he headed the ministerial-level Taiwan Affairs Office, tasked with managing the mainland's policy towards Taiwan). Wang, ambassador to Japan from 2004 to 2007 as well as a former director of the Foreign Ministry's Asia department, will be the first-ever Asia hand to become foreign minister. Previous holders of the post have been either Russia or U.S. specialists.

Cui, 60, a U.S. expert whose current post is vice foreign minister in charge of North American affairs, will become China's ambassador to the United States. Cui also has ample Asia experience. He previously succeeded Wang as ambassador to Tokyo, a post he held from 2007 to 2009.

While all three foreign-policy professionals have a reputation for favoring negotiation over bluster, it is far from clear that their appointment signals a change in the aggressive turn Beijing's policy has taken toward sovereignty disputes in its neighborhood.

In China, major policies on diplomacy and national security are made not by the Foreign Ministry but by the Chinese Communist Party's Central Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, which General Secretary Xi Jinping heads. Members of this top-level interdepartmental organ include representatives from the Foreign Ministry, the army, and the Ministry of State Security, as well as departments handling energy and foreign trade. But two Beijing sources close to the foreign-policy establishment say that Xi, who doubles as commander-in-chief of the military, has given the generals -- many of them fellow princelings, the offspring of party elders -- a bigger say in national-security issues than his predecessor Hu Jintao.

At least in terms of symbolism and atmospherics, however, the new diplomatic trio could take a more flexible approach to tackling the most worrying flashpoint in Asia: China and Japan's ferocious wrangling over the sovereignty of a group of islets called the Diaoyu in China and the Senkakus in Japan.

Given widespread perception within the party leadership that the intensification of the U.S.-Japan defense alliance -- which applies to the Senkakus -- is a centerpiece of Washington's pivot to Asia, the personnel changes in Beijing could also affect the style, if not the substance, of how the party will pursue relations with the United States.

Wang's return to the Foreign Ministry after five largely successful years as chief executor of Beijing's Taiwan policy is highly significant. A fluent Japanese speaker, Wang helped break the impasse in Sino-Japanese ties in 2001-2006, when Junichiro Koizumi was prime minister of Japan.

Koizumi infuriated the Chinese with provocative actions including annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors soldiers killed in World War II, including 14 war criminals. After Koizumi announced in June 2005 his plans to retire, Wang led the Chinese effort to mend fences by conducting secret talks with then Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the favorite to succeed Koizumi.

This discreet diplomacy resulted in Abe's visiting Beijing in October 2006, less than two weeks after he succeeded Koizumi as prime minister (Abe, after a five year break, was re-elected prime minister in December 2012). The visit came despite the ideological affinity between Koizumi and Abe, both of whom favored a more assertive foreign policy as well as the revision of the Japanese Constitution, which would enable Japan to convert its self-defense forces into a regular army.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry characterized Abe's 2006 trip as "ice-breaking." Abe allegedly made a private pledge not to visit the shrine while in office, and Beijing offered to focus on economic cooperation, while temporarily setting aside ideological and historical issues, according to diplomatic sources in Tokyo and Beijing.

Wang has also successfully helped negotiate the rapprochement over the past few years between the party and its former arch-enemy, the Kuomintang, the ruling party of Taiwan. Known for his charm and finesse, Wang could complement Yang, who has the reputation of a cerebral strategist.

By promoting Yang to the post of state councilor in charge of diplomacy, the party leadership may also be sending the signal that it's contemplating a more nuanced posture toward Obama's pivot, which some in the party leadership interpret as a move to contain China. Yang has much more experience with the United States than the outgoing state councilor, Dai Bingguo, who spent most of his career on Russian and East European affairs. Yang cut his diplomatic teeth by serving as interpreter for former President George H.W. Bush, when the latter headed the United States' Beijing Liaison Office (the precursor to the U.S. Embassy) in the mid-1970s. Altogether Yang, a graduate of the London School of Economics, has served three tours in the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

Yang enjoys cozy ties with American politicians and in particular, business leaders. He wants to devote more resources to lobbying American multinationals, according to sources close to the diplomatic establishment. These sources also say that Beijing hopes this will persuade the White House to put business before ideology in its China policy. And Cui, who attended Johns Hopkins University while serving in the Chinese delegation to the United Nations in the 1980s, could be a suitable candidate for pursing this new-look, "people-to-people" diplomacy with the United States.

It is important to note, however, that whatever changes in style and orientation the trio's appointment may portend do not necessarily signal a de-escalation of Beijing's increasingly ferocious saber rattling. The generals appear to overwhelmingly favor bellicosity -- they have enthusiastically echoed Xi's repeated calls over the past two months for China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) to "get ready to fight well and to win wars." Gen. Wei Fenghe, who is commander of China's missile forces, said in February that the PLA must "improve its war-fighting skills" and "it must fulfill the task of winning wars." And recent commentary in People's Liberation Army Daily, a military newspaper, argued that the Chinese military must rid itself of "peacetime inertia and other [bad] habits accumulated over a prolonged period of peace." Popular military commentator Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, who in April 2012 called for a limited war to "punish" the Philippines for allegedly occupying Chinese territories in the South China Sea, even suggested in a January 2013 interview with Chinese state media that China "must raise its guard against stealthy [military] attacks launched by other countries." Even as diplomats such as Fu Ying, the vice foreign minister in charge of Asia, have reiterated Beijing's commitment to "peaceful development" in global affairs, China has increased the frequency of its "patrol" of the Diaoyu-Senkakus by marine surveillance and other quasi-military vessels.

It is too early to say whether the promotion of diplomats with decades of experience in pursuing mutually beneficiary relations with Japan and the United States signals a fundamental change in the Xi administration's pugilistic stance on power projection in the Pacific. Yet at the very least, these personnel changes could indicate that top decision-making bodies are contemplating options other than relentlessly beating the drums of war.

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Camelot in Tokyo

Can Caroline Kennedy shake up Japan’s sexist politics?

TOKYO — At a White House luncheon in 1961, when U.S. President John F. Kennedy raised a glass to praise then Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda of Japan for sending his daughters to teach in the United States, he could not have foreseen that his own daughter, just 3 years old at the time, might also one day become one of those hostages of fortune in Ikeda's home country. While Kennedy might not have envisioned it, his successor Barack Obama has, according to Bloomberg News, with his possible nomination of Caroline Kennedy for U.S. ambassador to Japan.

The buzz surrounding the nomination is still largely speculative. But with Bloomberg having set the pace, Japanese news media from MSN Sankei News to NHK now have a catalyst for contemplation. One headline reads: "Is Kennedy's Daughter a Japanophile?" The rumor does raise interesting questions about what Kennedy -- as a global celebrity, the first woman in the role, and an education advocate -- could signify for Japan.

Kennedy, 55, has a powerful political network at her disposal. And as the first woman U.S. ambassador to Japan, she would be uniquely positioned to influence gender politics at a critical time in Japan and in the region.

Almost alone among developed countries, Japan has a lousy record on women's issues, with social equality on par with the likes of El Salvador and Azerbaijan. As of 2011, only 12 percent of Japan's management positions were held by women, according to the International Monetary Fund. And while there has always been a dearth of women in government, just how Japan measures up in terms of gender equality is only recently drawing more attention by those who run it from their offices in Nagatacho, Tokyo's equivalent of Capitol Hill.

Japan might need to try a little harder: Women candidates won 38 of 480 seats in December's lower house election, and only three of the 44 ministers and senior vice ministers in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's new cabinet are women. Elsewhere in the region, President Park Geun-hye assumed office as South Korea's first woman president last month, and last year Tsai Ing-wen became Taiwan's first female candidate for president. In the World Economic Forum's 2012 report on the global gender gap, Japan ranked 101st out of 135 countries, down three places from last year. China ranked 69th.

Worse yet, Japan is facing a decline in gender empowerment, says William Saito, public policy advisor and CEO of InTecur, a Tokyo-based consultancy. He often cites the numbers of women board members, the low percentage of women leading institutions of higher education, and even women's difficulty securing loans as evidence of gender inequality. Were Kennedy to become U.S. ambassador to Japan, he says, it couldn't come at a more opportune time. "I think this appointment would be a great catalyst for addressing this issue and reversing the backward decline in Japan," says Saito.

And gender politics is not an issue that Japan can afford to ignore. With a rapidly aging demographic and low productivity -- by comparison with the United States -- closing that gender gap could increase the country's productivity by as much as 16 percent, according to the World Economic Forum report.

Public attitudes in Japan are arguably going backward, however. A poll conducted by the Japanese government last December shows that 51 percent of respondents think women should be stay-at-home mothers. That figure is up 10 percent since 2009 -- with the increase most notable among people in their 20s. Kathy Matsui, chief Japan equity strategist at Goldman Sachs and longtime proponent of "womenomics," has said that encouraging the participation of women in the workforce should be a national priority. "It should be up there with solving the fiscal deficit. It should be up there with how to improve Japan's national competitiveness.… It's staring you in the face -- it's half the population."

Encouraging and facilitating greater participation by women would resonate with the Obama administration's global push to elevate women's issues. Introduced by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the policy made women and girls "a core factor" of U.S. foreign policy. And while Kennedy missed a chance to grab Clinton's New York Senate seat -- withdrawing her bid early in the process -- she has proved deft at directing her network to achieve her ends.

Working with former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein from 2002 to 2004, Kennedy was credited with securing tens of millions of dollars to support the city's public schools as director of the Office of Strategic Partnerships. That boosted her image as a passionate and vocal advocate of education and literacy as central to a stronger American workforce.

Kennedy could also be a powerful example to Japanese women. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, an attorney, and author and editor of nine bestselling books, with topics ranging from constitutional law to poetry, she is also president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and chair of an advisory committee to the Institute of Politics at Harvard.

But most of all, Kennedy would bring her family's still-tremendous mystique to the job -- and turn the post into a powerful platform on both sides of the Pacific. One adoring observer noted that she and her husband, Edwin A. Schlossberg, opted for Tokyo and Osaka (and Hawaii) over Europe as their honeymoon in 1986.

Like everywhere else, in the 1960s, Japan was riveted by images of Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy as veritable American royalty. When Ikeda attended Kennedy's state funeral in Washington, the Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) began its coverage at 7 a.m. and picked up ratings of 40 percent. And in a country still very much captivated by the Kennedys, her celebrity could also provide a subtle antidote to the growing concern among Japanese officials that Japan is being eclipsed in American eyes by its chief regional rival, China.

Female politicians in Japan certainly know something of celebrity as well -- perhaps because there are so few of them in places of power. In October 2012, former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda appointed Makiko Tanaka, daughter of iconic postwar Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, minister of education, reportedly with the hope that her "public appeal" would help policymaking. It at least got her the post. As Japan's first female foreign minister a decade prior, she had a reputation for controversy bred by disagreement with bureaucrats and criticism of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, media darling and president of her Liberal Democratic Party.

Kennedy lacks diplomatic experience and has not held political office. But she comes across as a no-nonsense pragmatist whose passion for issues -- such as education, a hot-button topic in Japan -- could land her in the right place at the right time if she has Obama's ear.

If she is indeed nominated and confirmed, Kennedy will join a long line of attorneys in the post. The current ambassador, former CEO John Roos, was also a prominent technology lawyer in Silicon Valley. So was his predecessor Thomas Schieffer (whose brother, Bob, enjoys considerable celebrity as a CBS News host), who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2005.

Still, Kennedy faces a steep learning curve. She'll have to be instantly adept at reading the politics of sensitive trade and military issues, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact and the politically charged relocation of the Futenma air base in Okinawa.

Whomever Obama decides to name, the next U.S. ambassador to Japan will play a role in determining U.S. involvement in Japan's myriad economic and security challenges in the region -- some new, some perennial. The ongoing showdown with China over disputed islands in the East China Sea saw sales of Japanese products plummet. A separate territorial spat with South Korea resulted in the boycott of Japanese goods starting last week. North Korea's nuclear test last month and the occasional rocket launch have ratcheted up tensions in the region. And there's always the fluctuating state of the yen, which has declined roughly 15 percent against the dollar over the past three months. Just as uncertain: Japan's top leadership. Roos has worked with the administrations of five different Japanese prime ministers since his appointment in May 2009.

If confirmed, Kennedy would have an opportunity to be defined by her actions, not by her celebrity, gender, or even her foreignness. In that way, she might eventually emerge as a powerful role model for Japanese women who would benefit greatly from the same: the opportunities to make the most of their skills and talents -- those yet unrecognized, perhaps even unknown, to paraphrase a famous statesman.

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