China’s man in Washington Cui Tiankai heads for home after eight years as envoy

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After months of speculation, China’s longest-serving ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai confirmed on Tuesday that he would be leaving Washington, at a time of heightened tensions between the two countries.

Cui, who held the key position for eight years, was known for his relatively moderate stance compared to the more hawkish breed of Wolf Warrior diplomats. He is expected to be succeeded by foreign vice-minister Qin Gang, a career diplomat who has worked on European affairs, but with no direct experience in the United States.

Cui leaves his post at a difficult time in China-US relations, as the Biden administration works to repair its alliances and pushes for greater coordination against Beijing, particularly on human rights and trade.

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Will China choose a Wolf Warrior or smooth diplomat as its next US envoy?

Analysts say they do not expect a summit between President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping any time soon, particularly after the fireworks between the two sides’ top diplomats at their March meeting in Anchorage.

In a departing message, Cui wrote on Tuesday morning that he would be returning to China after serving as its top envoy in the US since April 2013.

He called on overseas Chinese in the US to play a key role in stabilising relations between Beijing and Washington, as the Biden administration reviews and shapes its China policy.

“China-US relations are at a critical crossroads, with the US engaging in a new round of restructuring in its government policy towards China, and it is facing a choice between cooperation and confrontation,” he said.

“At this moment, overseas Chinese in the US have to shoulder a greater responsibility and mission, and I hope you will defend your right to be in the US and to develop your own interests, with the starting point of helping to safeguard the fundamental interests of the people in China and the US.”

Cui Tiankai: from a Heilongjiang farm to China’s ambassador in Washington

Cui’s departure from Washington was reportedly delayed so the veteran diplomat could navigate the increasingly rocky waters of the relationship in the face of unprecedented pushback against Beijing’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. His tenure was unusually long and, at 68, he is well past the traditional retirement age.

At a time when China’s diplomatic corps had become increasingly outspoken and often outwardly combative, Cui’s comparatively softer approach drew a stark contrast with figures such as China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.

Even while Zhao publicly amplified conspiracy theories that Covid-19 had spread to Wuhan from the US military, Cui said that blame games over the origins of the virus were played out by a “small number of politicians” and did not represent the wider public sentiment in either country.

Cui was summoned for “stern representations” over Zhao’s comments last March by then-US assistant secretary of state David Stilwell.

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said Cui had played an important and active part in China-US relations, although his role had been limited after the deterioration of recent years.

“Cui has kept a good dialogue with the US and played an important and active role in Sino-US relations, but only before the outbreak of Covid-19 and the Biden administration taking a full-scale confrontation against China,” Shi said, adding that the deteriorating environment had removed Cui’s opportunities for engagement with US government officials.

“Cui tried his best to communicate with US think tanks and the media during this hard time, and kept calling on China and the US to ease tensions, that is to say, he still insisted on doing what he could under extremely difficult circumstances, but the improvement was very limited.”

He also disagreed with the senior diplomat’s assessment of the state of China-US relations. “The US-China relationship is no longer at a crossroads,” he said, adding that US policy towards China had already been decided and the US had chosen “a very wrong path”.

Cui’s exit follows the departure of other long-serving diplomats, such as Liu Xiaoming, who was appointed as the special representative on Korean peninsula affairs after his decade-long posting as ambassador to Britain.

Cui’s successor has not been confirmed, but is widely expected to be Qin Gang, 55, who joined the foreign ministry as a junior aide in 1992. He worked his way up to ministry spokesman, before becoming a vice-minister responsible for overseeing European affairs, information and state protocol matters.

Observers said the role of US envoy would be a challenge for Qin, who lacks direct involvement in managing American affairs, in the more complicated and strained atmosphere of China-US relations.

“Qin Gang will have a long time to be familiar with American affairs in the future, and the tasks he will face are more intense and complicated than in the past,” Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing said.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Tuesday there was no information to release on Cui’s successor.

Additional reporting by Catherine Wong

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