What to Expect from China’s New Foreign Policy Team?

China will shake up its diplomatic leadership this week, according to The Wall Street Journal, elevating foreign minister Yang Jiechi to a senior post overseeing the country’s broader foreign policy strategy:

Mr. Yang is likely to succeed Dai Bingguo as state councilor responsible for foreign affairs—the country’s top diplomatic position—according to Chinese foreign-policy scholars and diplomats in Beijing. Among his most pressing challenges will be managing relations with Washington and coordinating the behavior of interest groups such as the military and state-owned enterprises, which have become important foreign-policy actors but at times drive conflicting agendas.

Mr. Yang’s expected appointment suggests to many analysts and diplomats a continuation of recent trends in China’s diplomacy, characterized by a more assertive approach, especially to territorial issues, that has raised tensions with several of its neighbors and the U.S. That approach has been attributed partly to the lack of a foreign policy specialist on the Party’s Politburo—the country’s top 25 leaders—for the last decade. That body includes two generals, several local government leaders, and many people from state industry backgrounds, all of whom have vested interests in foreign policy.

Mr. Yang is likely to be replaced as foreign minister by Wang Yi, a former ambassador to Japan, according to diplomats and Chinese foreign-policy experts.

While the promoted officials include former ambassadors to the U.S. and Japan, do the appointments signal a change in Beijing’s approach to relations with its key rivals? For Foreign Policy, Willy Lam ponders what we can expect from Xi Jinping’s personnel changes:

In China, major policies on diplomacy and national security are made not by the Foreign Ministry but by the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, which General Secretary Xi Jinping heads. Members of this top-level interdepartmental organ include representatives from the Foreign Ministry, the army, and the Ministry of State Security, as well as departments handling energy and foreign trade. But two Beijing sources close to the foreign-policy establishment say that Xi, who doubles as commander-in-chief of the military, has given the generals — many of them fellow princelings, the offspring of party elders — a bigger say in national-security issues than his predecessor Hu Jintao.

At least in terms of symbolism and atmospherics, however, the new diplomatic trio could take a more flexible approach to tackling the most worrying flashpoint in Asia: China and Japan’s ferocious wrangling over the sovereignty of a group of islets called the Diaoyu in China and the Senkakus in Japan.

Given widespread perception within the party leadership that the intensification of the U.S.-Japan defense alliance — which applies to the Senkakus — is a centerpiece of Washington’s pivot to Asia, the personnel changes in Beijing could also affect the style, if not the substance, of how the party will pursue relations with the United States.

It is important to note, however, that whatever changes in style and orientation the trio’s appointment may portend do not necessarily signal a de-escalation of Beijing’s increasingly ferocious saber rattling. The generals appear to overwhelmingly favor bellicosity — they have enthusiastically echoed Xi’s repeated calls over the past two months for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to “get ready to fight well and to win wars.” Gen. Wei Fenghe, who is commander of China’s missile forces, said in February that the PLA must “improve its war-fighting skills” and “it must fulfill the task of winning wars.” And recent commentary in People’s Liberation Army Daily, a military newspaper, argued that the Chinese military must rid itself of “peacetime inertia and other [bad] habits accumulated over a prolonged period of peace.” Popular military commentator Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, who in April 2012 called for a limited war to “punish” the Philippines for allegedly occupying Chinese territories in the South China Sea, even suggested in a January 2013 interview with Chinese state media that China “must raise its guard against stealthy [military] attacks launched by other countries.” Even as diplomats such as Fu Ying, the vice foreign minister in charge of Asia, have reiterated Beijing’s commitment to “peaceful development” in global affairs, China has increased the frequency of its “patrol” of the Diaoyu-Senkakus by marine surveillance and other quasi-military vessels.

In a contribution to CNN, Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt dismisses the notion that “the new team will ease up” in its approach to foreign policy and regional territorial disputes:

As the National People’s Congress opened in Beijing, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Fu Ying warned that the country had sent an “important signal” to the region that it would respond “decisively” to provocations on territorial disputes.

That means we can expect Beijing to continue with its “reactive assertiveness” foreign policy tactic. China has perfected this approach in its ongoing maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas.

The approach allows Beijing to use perceived provocations as a chance to change the status quo in its favor — all the while insisting the other party started the trouble.

In Beijing’s eyes, it is a means of satisfying domestic pressure for a tougher foreign policy to match its economic might, all while trying to cling to the mantra of peaceful development. But this juggling act does not always work, and a number of countries in the region are giving up on the notion of a peacefully rising China.