Mr ‘Indispensable’: China’s top diplomat to US Cui Tiankai to stay on in Biden era

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China’s top envoy to the United States Cui Tiankai is expected to stay on in the job to help handle the volatile relations between the two countries, according to diplomatic sources in Beijing.

The decision to keep the veteran diplomat in Washington is believed to be part of Beijing’s plans to manage tensions with the new US administration and prepare for confrontational competition over the long term.

After nearly eight years in the position, Cui is already the country’s longest-serving ambassador to Washington, and several people with knowledge of the matter, including Chinese diplomats, said Beijing had no plan to replace him any time soon.

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“Cui has been well regarded among the leadership for his ability to help reduce miscommunication and misperceptions and avoid conflict between China and the US,” said a diplomat in Beijing who spoke on condition of anonymity. “His role has been and will remain largely indispensable – at least for now.”

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Cui is in the Alaskan city of Anchorage this week for the first face-to-face dialogue between top American and Chinese diplomats since US President Joe Biden took office. The meeting will be led by President Xi Jinping’s top foreign policy aide Yang Jiechi, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

In an interview with Chinese media on the eve of the talks, Cui sought to temper expectations for the high-stakes event.

“So we do not have unrealistic expectations or illusions on it,” he told state news agency Xinhua and several other Chinese media outlets. “But I hope that it will become a beginning and that the two sides will start a candid, constructive and rational process of dialogue and communication. If this can be achieved, then the dialogue will be successful.”

His remarks were largely in line with Beijing’s internal assessment of the Biden administration’s China policy, which is still under review, according to sources.

Observers said that while Beijing had softened its antagonistic tone in recent weeks to show willingness to engage with the Biden team, the Chinese leadership did not expect Washington to significantly deviate from the US bipartisan consensus to confront China.

“For Beijing, dealing with Biden’s multilateral approach on China is definitely more challenging than [former US president Donald] Trump’s unilateral, single-minded crusade against China. That’s why Beijing is in urgent need of capable diplomatic veterans, like Cui,” said Gu Su, a political analyst at Nanjing University.

US-China relations: Alaska’s chill mirrors the outlook for talks between nations’ diplomats

Cui started his US tenure in April 2013, and at 68 is well beyond the statutory retirement age of 65 for cabinet-level ministers and ambassadorships of similar protocol rank.

He has been the focus of persistent speculation over the past few years about his retirement plans, especially since the sudden departure last year of the US ambassador to China Terry Branstad.

In an interview with former US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson last year, Cui signalled his intention to retire.

“Honestly, I have to confess, when I first came here, I didn’t expect I would stay here for so long,” he said. “I do feel grateful that I’m doing this job at this critical moment for both our countries. This is most probably my last posting abroad in my diplomatic career.”

Cui’s deep knowledge of the US affairs and personal connections with incumbent and former US government officials and lawmakers could be a key reason his retirement plan has to be postponed again, according to Pang Zhongying, an international affairs analyst at the Ocean University of China.

Sources and observers also confirmed that Beijing had high hopes of progress through Cui’s personal ties with officials from Biden’s White House, many of whom are veterans from the era of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

According to a retired senior Chinese diplomat, there are widespread concerns within Beijing’s foreign policy establishment about hard-headed realists in the Biden camp – including Kurt Campbell – in favour of standing up to China’s assertiveness. “It is hoped that his personal ties in the US may still play a role in shifting the new US administration’s perceptions about China,” he said.

Although controversial among China watchers in the US, Cui’s close ties with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, were largely credited with securing Beijing’s access to the unconventional former US leader, when official and other semi-official channels of communication effectively shut down.

Cui is also known for being one of the few Chinese diplomats who are still well respected in both China and the US.

Campbell, who is also expected to be at the Alaska meeting, spoke highly of Cui and once described him as a “very strategic” diplomat. “[He] always comes with a game plan, is never rattled, and if he did express anger, it was as part of a show,” Campbell said in 2013.

Cui has also been praised for keeping a distance from Wolf Warrior-style diplomats, such as his foreign ministry colleague spokesman Zhao Lijian, who embraced Xi’s call for a “greater sense of fighting spirit”.

But many observers said Beijing’s inability to replace Cui for years might point to a deeper, more worrying problem – the ageing of the senior diplomatic line-up and the shortage of younger, well-trained, first-rate envoys.

Gu of Nanjing University said that although Beijing had increased its budget for diplomacy, the lack of professionalism and a pool of competent career diplomats would remain a stumbling block for China’s diplomatic service as well as its ability to repair its international reputation around the world.

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