The Biden administration shut out outgoing Chinese ambassador Qin Gang for much of his more than 500-day tenure in Washington, D.C.
But that all changed last week when Chinese leader Xi Jinping appointed Qin as the country’s new foreign minister, creating a headache for the administration at a time of high tension between Washington and Beijing.
The problems will be front and center in the coming weeks when Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits China as the countries clash over trade, Chinese military intimidation of Taiwan and access to technology.
“I think that there are probably those within the administration that feel chagrined that they did not extend the courtesies [to Qin] that normally would be extended to an ambassador,” said Craig Allen, president of the U.S.-China Business Council.
Qin didn’t get all of the meetings he requested with senior administration officials over the past 17 months, although the administration did relax its restrictions on Qin’s access in the run-up to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial trip to Taiwan in August. But he returns to Beijing this week to helm China’s foreign ministry stung by failed efforts to connect with the Biden administration.
Qin’s promotion confirms he has Xi’s trust, something the president signaled in October by appointing Qin to the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee. Qin replaced Wang Yi, whom Xi appointed to lead the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission last week. Beijing will name Qin’s successor “after completing due procedures,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said on Tuesday.
Months after arriving in Washington, D.C., in July 2021, Qin was limited to meetings with just a handful of U.S. officials, according to two people with knowledge of the interactions. That narrow access came despite repeated requests to meet with more senior administration officials, said those people, who were granted anonymity to share private conversations.
The White House rejects this characterization. “Senior White House officials — along with senior officials from across the administration — have engaged regularly with Ambassador Qin since his arrival in Washington,” spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a written statement. The statement included a list of eight senior officials, including Blinken, Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, who had met with Qin while he was ambassador.
The Chinese embassy didn’t respond to a request for comment regarding Qin’s access to U.S. officials during his tenure.
Qin responded to the restrictions on high-level access by relying on lower-level interactions with other foreign ambassadors and state and municipal-level officials. He even hung out with the NBA’s Washington Wizards.
That experience may work to his advantage as foreign minister. Qin’s “broad exposure to the United States outside the Beltway … will give him an appreciation of the broader forces informing America’s foreign policy,” said Ryan Hass, former director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the National Security Council.
If Qin resented his treatment in Washington, his farewell messages didn’t show it. He expressed “sincere gratitude” for the “great support and assistance from all sectors of the American people” in a tweet thread published on Monday.
The test of Qin’s sincerity will be his management of Blinken’strip to China. “Our understanding is that Secretary Blinken will be traveling to Beijing in February right after the Chinese New Year,” said USCBC president Allen. If Qin is still nursing a bruised ego — and if the visit occurs after a promised trip to Taiwan by GOP leader Kevin McCarthy — Blinken may hit a diplomatic brick wall in Beijing.
Blinken has yet to release an agenda for that trip. But he’ll need Qin’s help to address a growing list of issues including counternarcotics cooperation and China’s growing nuclear weapons arsenal. Qin has signaled such cooperation is possible. In a tweet published on Sunday, Qin thanked Blinken for “constructive meetings” and said he looks forward to “continuing close relations” with Blinken.
Blinken marked Qin’s promotion with a tweet that confirmed the two men discussed “maintaining opening lines of communication” in a farewell phone conversation on Sunday. Blinken “expects to continue a productive working relationship with Foreign Minister Qin in his new role,” a State Department spokesperson unauthorized to speak on the record told POLITICO in a statement.
Not everyone thinks that Qin’s ascension to foreign minister spells trouble for the U.S.-China relationship.
Qin “didn’t get all the meetings he wanted with senior US officials in the early months of his tenure … [but] I doubt there is any residual ill will that will hamper their interaction going forward,” said Bonnie Glaser, managing director GMF Indo-Pacific at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.
Qin’s history of bare-knuckled pushback of foreign criticism of China may have worked against his success in D.C. In his public debut in September 2021, he reinforced his reputation as a prickly avatar of Chinese diplomacy with a speech that excoriated U.S. “wrong beliefs” and cautioned against violating Beijing’s “red line” of core interests in areas including the South China Sea, Taiwan and Xinjiang. He spiked those comments with an ominous reference to China’s nuclear weapons capability and warned of “disastrous consequences” if the U.S. seeks to suppress China using a “Cold War playbook.”
Time didn’t dull those sharp edges. A year later, Qin used a near-90-minute press briefing to decry perceived U.S. transgressions against Chinese sovereignty. He also expressed frustration that his best efforts to engage with the Biden administration had failed to prevent Pelosi’s Taiwan trip. But the structure of China’s diplomatic corps may limit Qin’s influence on bilateral relations.
“Qin Gang is obviously still an important figure globally, but I’m not sure how important he will be to managing the U.S.-China relationship,” said Zack Cooper, former assistant to the deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism at the National Security Council and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
“For at least the last two years when we had to really have some serious negotiations, they tended to be between [former senior diplomat] Yang Jiechi and [national security adviser] Jake Sullivan,” he said. “And I see no reason that that would change in the next two years.”
Qin’s success as foreign minister will largely depend on the degree to which the Chinese Communist Party is willing to adjust its foreign policy that includes a more bellicose military posture in the Indo-Pacific, economic coercion and high tech espionage.
“If Xi embraces true openness and reform, Qin Gang may enjoy his new assignment,” said Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center. “If Xi does not change his spots, Qin will be the international face of an increasingly unwelcome power.”