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Updated: March 17, 2013 02:50 IST

Cautious, unyielding diplomat likely to represent Beijing in border talks

Ananth Krishnan
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Yang Jiechi
Yang Jiechi

Yang Jiechi interacts with media only during annual briefings

China’s former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, an official known for his cautious demeanour and often unyielding approach in negotiations according to diplomats who have dealt with him, is likely to be the new Special Representative (SR) on the boundary talks with India.

Mr. Yang (62) was promoted on Saturday as one of five State Councillors in the new Chinese Cabinet, or State Council, as the government announced the appointments of new ministers on the last working day of the on-going annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), or Parliament. The rank of State Councillor is below that of the four Vice-Premiers in the Chinese Cabinet.

Succeeds Dai

Newly-appointed Premier Li Keqiang, who was approved as the head of the State Council by the NPC on Friday, selected Mr. Yang as the successor of outgoing State Councillor Dai Bingguo, who, as China’s top diplomat, also served as the SR on the boundary talks since the mechanism was introduced in 2003.

Mr. Yang’s earlier position as Foreign Minister will be filled by Wang Yi, a career diplomat who is an expert on Japan and speaks fluent Japanese, reflecting China’s renewed focus on that country amid rising tensions over disputed East China Sea islands. Mr. Wang earlier served as the head of the Taiwan Affairs Office, since 2008.

Mr. Yang is expected to take over as SR, informed sources said, unless China decides to appoint a lower-level official, such as the new Foreign Minister, as SR — an unlikely move that will be seen as downgrading the level of the talks and sending a negative signal.

Mr. Yang Jiechi, according to diplomats and Chinese officials, is markedly different from his predecessor. Mr. Dai Bingguo, an experienced negotiator known for his charisma and quick wit, was an outgoing personality who was open to engaging informally with journalists and known for establishing strong personal relationships with his interlocutors. He often described National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, his counterpart on the boundary talks, as an “old friend.”

In contrast, Mr. Yang has rarely interacted with the media, except for his annual briefings, which are usually tightly scripted affairs with his answers rarely deviating from the official Chinese position.

Departed from script

One occasion when Mr. Yang departed from the script resulted in some controversy, during an ASEAN meeting in 2010 when the former Foreign Minister, taken aback by then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement on the South China Sea dispute, stormed out of a meeting.

He returned to the room to deliver what officials described as a half-hour rant, during which he “accused the United States of plotting against China on this issue, seemed to poke fun at Vietnam’s Socialist credentials and apparently threatened Singapore,” the U.S. and Asian officials present told the Washington Post.

Mr. Yang reportedly told the meeting, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”

How Mr. Yang’s appointment will impact ties with India or the status of the boundary talks is unclear. The secrecy with which the 15 rounds of talks have been held has made it difficult to ascertain the progress so far. Mr. Yang’s task, in any case, will be to follow the guidelines set by the Communist Party of China’s Politburo.

In order to enable continuity from the previous round, India and China in December prepared a “common understanding” report on the talks so far when Mr. Menon visited Beijing for meetings with Mr. Dai. Mr. Menon said then both countries made “considerable progress.”

Three-stage process

India and China are now in the second round of a three-stage process, which involves agreeing to a framework to settle the boundary question in all sectors. The two sides have appeared to have made little headway since 2005, when the first stage was completed with the signing of an agreement on political parameters and guiding principles.

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