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China’s new ambassador to Washington starts work amid moribund bilateral ties

Xie Yang takes up his post with scant sign of a return to the ‘guardrails’ envisaged under President Joe Biden.

By Sun Cheng for RFA Mandarin, Fong Tak Ho for RFA Cantonese

May 25, 2023

Xie Feng, China’s new ambassador to the U.S., gives a speech in a press conference in Hong Kong on February 7, 2020.

China’s new ambassador to the United States, Xie Yang, started his tenure by stating baldly that he is there to look after his country’s interests, first and foremost.

Arriving in Washington amid unprecedented tension over Taiwan and the shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon over U.S. soil, former Hong Kong foreign affairs envoy Xie Feng fills a post that has been empty for five months, the longest hiatus in the history of bilateral ties.

In a brief statement at the airport on Tuesday, Xie, 59, kicked off by recognizing the “serious difficulties and challenges” in the U.S.-China relationship.

“We hope that the United States will work together with China to increase dialogue, to manage differences and also to expand our cooperation, so that our relationship will be back to the right track,” Xie said in remarks delivered in English.

But he also named the “Taiwan question” among the sensitive issues at the top of his agenda, striking a tone that is becoming known as China’s “wolf-warrior” diplomatic style.

“I have come here to safeguard China's interest. This is my sacred responsibility,” he said after landing at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

“I’m also the envoy of Chinese people, so I’ve come here to enhance China-U.S. exchanges and cooperation,” said Xie.

‘Wolf warrior’ reputation

Xie’s reputation is generally in line with the “wolf warrior” image of some Chinese diplomats, and he has engaged in blunt rebukes of U.S. actions on issues ranging from trade to official contact with the democratic island of Taiwan, which Beijing has threatened to annex by military force if necessary.

As the foreign ministry’s envoy to Hong Kong during the 2019 protest movement, Xie blamed the protests against the loss of the city’s freedoms as the work of a “minority” of angry and disaffected youth who “desecrated the national flag and waved foreign ones, begging for outside intervention.”

Xie also has a strong track record in delivering diplomatic retorts specifically targeting the United States, having served in Washington as a junior attache as early as 2000, where he rose to become embassy spokesman.

After his transfer back to Beijing in January 2021, Xie took up the post of vice minister of foreign affairs in charge of policy planning and regional affairs for the Americas and Oceania, where he accused Washington of not doing enough to fight the pandemic, and of hypocrisy over its criticism of China's human rights record.

Efforts to repair U.S.-China ties have struggled since then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022, sparking days of military saber-rattling by the People’s Liberation Army around the island.

Xie Feng addresses the media as he arrives at JFK airport in New York on May 23, 2023. Credit: Reuters

In February, just hours before Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to leave Washington for a visit to Beijing, he called off the trip after an alleged Chinese spying balloon was found in U.S. airspace.

Then, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s March meeting with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy during a U.S. stopover prompted Beijing to launch aircraft carriers into the Western Pacific just south of Taiwan, with Beijing accusing the United States of “crossing the line” with the trip.

And there has been scant sign of any thaw since, State Department counselor Derek Chollet told the Voice of America in a recent interview, saying there are currently no plans for a regular meeting between Blinken and China’s most senior diplomat, Wang Yi. The two last met on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 18.

“There’s no decision at all on a regular meeting,” Chollet said. “As you know very well, Secretary Blinken was just hours from departing for Beijing several months ago, until the Chinese irresponsibly and unacceptably flew a surveillance balloon over the United States.”

But he said U.S. Ambassador to China Nick Burns had recently returned from public service leave to Beijing where he had had “several meetings” to try to find “a floor” for the relationship.

And he described national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s May 11 meeting with Wang Yi in Vienna as another attempt to find “guardrails” following recent tensions.

“We’ve had a very difficult several months and as President Biden mentioned ... he’s, of course, hoping that there’ll be a moment for thaw in the relationship in what’s been a difficult period,” Chollet said.

‘Can set a positive tone’

Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said Xie Feng differs from his predecessors in that he has been dealing with the United States for a long time, appearing at a video meeting between President Joe Biden and China's Xi Jinping last November.

“Xie Feng has been dealing with the United States for quite some time,” Glaser said. “He is an expert who has been in the foreign ministry responsible for U.S. affairs, whereas [his predecessor] Qin Gang did not have a strong background in the U.S.-China relationship, so I think that is an important difference.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, Xie’s appointment could be an attempt to signal that Beijing is hoping for better communication with Washington despite recent tensions and the long hiatus between ambassadors.

“It has been over six months since the United States has had an ambassador from China, and I think that has hampered to some extent communications between the U.S. and Chinese governments,” Glaser said. “The ambassador can set a positive tone for the relationship, but the ambassador does not make decisions about policy.”

Wang Dan, who heads the Washington-based think tank Dialogue China, said Xie’s appointment says little about how the bilateral relationship will pan out over the next few months, however.

“Ever since Xi Jinping was voted in again [at the 20th party congress in October 2022], the [whole of Chinese diplomacy] has basically become the attitude of Xi Jinping alone,” Wang said. “I don’t think [Xie's appointment] should be regarded as some kind of political signal.”

Wang said even China’s more moderate diplomats will be under pressure to demonstrate their “wolf warrior” credentials under Xi.

“We’ve all seen this happen in the past, and I believe Xie Feng will go the same way,” he said.

The Chinese embassy declined to comment on Xie’s appointment or its likely effect on bilateral ties, responding only: “We will be releasing relevant information in due course. Please check our website and official social media platforms.”

Chollet said he had “no announcements to make” on a rescheduled visit by Blinken to Beijing.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Matt Reed.


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