Liu Jianchao: China's Shadow Foreign Minister

Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics  >  Trustee China Hand

Liu Jianchao, Minister of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) International Liaison Department, is currently in United States meeting with the business and policy communities. Although he is not China’s Foreign Minister – a title currently held by Wang Yi – he is in many ways acting like a second, or shadow, foreign minister.

While in New York earlier this week he delivered a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. In Washington, he first met with Principal Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer, followed by a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Prior to Xi Jinping taking over as China’s top leader, it was rare for individuals in Liu’s position to travel so widely and engage in such extensive diplomacy. In some ways this is a reflection of the “partification” of China’s policy process under Xi. First, he expanded the number of Party leading small groups on various issue areas, and then he turned some of these units into permanent commissions, giving the CCP a more direct role in both setting and implementing policy. In 2022 a new set of Party-based commissions and organizations were created, further cementing the CCP’s policymaking role.

Attention to Minister Liu also derives from recent personnel changes in the Foreign Ministry. Since Foreign Minister Qin Gang disappeared last summer, the Foreign Minister portfolio has been assumed by Wang Yi, who had previously served as Foreign Minister but had become Director of the CCP’s Foreign Affairs Commission. Many believe Wang’s re-appointment was always meant to be temporary until a more permanent solution could be found. Liu Jianchao seems to be the most obvious candidate to formally assume the role of Foreign Minister for the remainder of the usual five-year term (until March 2028). Liu Jianchao is thought to have a close relationship with Xi Jinping, and he has extensive diplomatic experience, including serving as China’s ambassador to the Philippines (2009-2012) and Indonesia (2012-2014).

A key question is whether he (or someone else) could be appointed at the next session of the National People’s Congress annual conclave this March or immediately or if an investigation into former Foreign Minister Qin Gang would have to be completed first. 

In any case, given Liu’s more active role on the world stage, it is worth knowing a little more about him. Although given the timing of his visit, Taiwan and cross-Strait relations are likely central topics of discussion, he has weighed in on many different issues, consistently reflecting the Party line.

Liu has been a vocal supporter of Xi’s international economic policies. In a piece for China’s national broadcaster published in August 2021, Liu reiterated China’s commitment to multilateralism:

“China is committed to being an open and inclusive, not closed and exclusive, country. One committed to international law, not a system of sole national privilege... China has always been a builder of world peace, contributor to global development, and protector of the world order.” 

Liu has emphasized that China is a positive force in the global economy in a recent piece published in the People’s Daily in August 2023:

“China takes practical actions to promote the implementation of global development initiatives...injecting strong impetus into global economic growth.”

He also has taken not-so-veiled jabs at the United States:

On the contrary, in today’s world who is trying to dominate international affairs, dominate the destiny of other countries, and monopolize developmental advantages? ... Who is pursuing policies of decoupling, cutting supply, and sanctions? Who is pushing the world towards division and confrontation? I think people around the world can see this clearly.”

In November 2023 in the Communist Party journal Qiushi, Liu wrote on China’s role in the global south, once again contrasting China’s open position with a world supposedly made more closed by Western powers:

“In today’s world, unilateralism, protectionism, and populism are on the rise. ‘Small gardens with high walls’, ‘decoupling’, and confrontations between different camps are rampant... Countries in the global south have bravely stood against this tide.”

His speech this week at the Council on Foreign Relations was aimed at reassuring international audiences of China’s openness to the world. A review of the session, which was recorded, suggests that many in the audience were not convinced and were skeptical of some of his claims.

The larger point is that at the end of the day, China still has the same leader, Xi Jinping, whose overall views and vision have not changed. Shifts in other personnel or a more engaging tone may not make a huge difference in the content of China’s foreign policy or the prospects for fundamentally resolving core differences. 

Related Trustee Chair Activity:

Scott Kennedy, "U.S.-China Relations in 2024: Managing Competiton without Conflict," CSIS Commentary, January 3, 2024. 

"Prospects for China's Growth and Foreign Relations in an Era of Competiton: Big Data China Second Annual Conference," CSIS Event, December 5, 2023. 

"APEC 2023: Analysis and Outcomes," CSIS Event, November 20, 2023. 

"China's New Government Takes Over: Takeaways from China's Annual Legislative Session," CSIS Event, March 21, 2023. 

Scott Kennedy, Claire Reade, Paul Triolo, Jeannette Chu, John L. Holden, and Ilaria Mazzocco, "The Completed Construction of the Xi Jinping System of Governance," Trustee China Hand, March 15, 2023. 

 

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Scott Kennedy
Senior Adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics
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5Mazzocco
Senior Fellow, Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics

Ryan Featherston

Research Associate, Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics