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Russian President Vladimir Putin must be concerned that Chinese President Xi Jinping has demoted pro-Russia diplomat Le Yucheng. (Nikkei montage/AP/Reuters/Kyodo/Getty Images)
China up close

Analysis: Russia hand's demotion signals shift in Xi's strategy

Le Yucheng was top candidate to be China's next foreign minister

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He was the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize.

The demotion of Le Yucheng, China's first vice foreign minister, has sent shock waves through national political circles.

On June 14, it was announced that Le had been appointed deputy head of the National Radio and Television Administration and "no longer serves as vice foreign minister."

That meant the pro-Russian diplomat was no longer frontrunner in the race to become foreign minister.

After studying Russian, Le was assigned to the Foreign Ministry's Soviet and East European affairs department and served two stints at the Chinese embassy in Russia. He also served as China's ambassador to India at a young age.

His fingerprints were all over the now-famous summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing on Feb. 4.

"There is no ceiling on China-Russia relations," Le said beamingly after the meeting. "The express train of China-Russia relations is always running on track -- no terminal, just filling stations," he said. 

His analysis has not aged well. 

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Le Yucheng might have got carried away when he said, "The express train of China-Russia relations is always running on track -- no terminal, just filling stations."   © Kyodo

To be fair, as of Feb. 4, it was difficult for China to predict that Russia would attack Ukraine and its capital, Kyiv, on such an enormous scale.

But this is not to say China knew nothing. Le, the Russia specialist, should have been able to at least sense Putin's intent to invade eastern Ukraine sooner or later. 

He could have whispered to Xi the risks involved and urged caution.

Instead, Le barreled on in the opposite direction. Even if Xi had given his approval to deepening relations with Moscow, Le as a professional diplomat was naive and careless. His pro-Russian stance was so apparent that there was no way he could play a major role if Beijing decided to try and mediate between Russia and Ukraine.

Le's words were often cited by Biden administration officials and in the U.S. Congress as proof of unusual diplomatic, economic and military cooperation between China and Russia.

His dismissal indicates that China intends to take its diplomacy in a new direction.

One Chinese source noted that it was noteworthy that Xi has allowed the benching of a figure who held the key to his relationship with Putin and diplomacy toward Russia.

"There is likely a big-picture reason for this decision," another said.

This was a major demotion. Le was already a ministerial-level official. As an alternate member of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee, he was eligible to attend plenary sessions where important party decisions are made. Le was the only vice foreign minister with such high status.

Having once served as deputy director of the secretariat of the party's central commission for foreign affairs, Le had been seen as close to Xi, who doubles as the party's general secretary. 

Now he has been moved to a field outside his expertise.  

The announcement of Le's transfer came a day ahead of Xi's phone call with Putin, on June 15. Russia must have been puzzled by the developments.

One clue to understanding the move is that the day before it was announced, China's top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, a politburo member, talked with U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan for four and a half hours in Luxembourg.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi recently talked for four and a half hours in Luxembourg trying to arrange a Biden-Xi summit.   © Xinhua/AP

The Yang-Sullivan marathon session took place shortly after U.S. and Chinese defense ministers met in Singapore. It was meant to prepare for a summit between Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden. On Saturday, Biden himself revealed that he will hold phone talks with Xi in the near future. 

In China, "diplomatic moderates" hold considerable power. These figures include retired party elders and old party cadres who attach importance to striking a balance between the U.S. and Russia.

It is they who have directed a barrage of criticism toward Le. The fact that Le's remarks were exploited for U.S. legislation targeting Xi has been seen as especially troubling.

But why did Xi allow Le's demotion rather than exercise his enormous power to stop it?

It is likely that this involves more than foreign policy. Le's treatment is closely related to a leadership reshuffle to take place at the quinquennial party national congress this autumn. It is also tied to the formation of a new Chinese diplomatic team at an annual session of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, next spring.

U.S. President Joe Biden has revealed that he will speak by phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who needs to maintain lines of communication with the U.S. if he is to broker a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine.   © Reuters

Top diplomat Yang is already 72 and will certainly retire. Foreign Minister Wang Yi is a likely candidate to fill Yang's shoes, despite being 69 already. Wang's promotion would be in violation of the party's retirement age rule but he has no prominent rival.

Wang once served as Chinese ambassador to Japan. He has experience in diplomacy toward Asia, the Middle East and Africa. But he has no diplomatic achievements in relation to the U.S. If Wang were to succeed Yang as China's top diplomat, then Le was considered frontrunner to become foreign minister, the No. 2 diplomat.

Le's pro-Russia stance seemed to fit China's recent "wolf warrior diplomacy," which doesn't hesitate to confront the West.

But like it or not, the reality for China is that its top diplomatic relationship is with the U.S.

If the new Chinese diplomatic team were to be Wang, an Asian affairs expert, and Le, a Russian affairs expert, it would clearly lack the expertise to deal with Washington.

State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, 69, is likely to become China's top diplomat, despite his age.   © Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service/AP

There is no doubt that Le has been a central figure in preparing for China-Russia summits. In 2019, he contributed an article to a theoretical journal to mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the countries. It called for a new era in China-Russia relations.

But Le was absent on June 15 when Xi and Putin spoke by phone. 

It is noteworthy that Xi's call with Putin came on the Chinese president's 69th birthday. Official media reports in both countries did not mention whether Putin congratulated Xi on his anniversary. But a source familiar with previous discussions said, "If we think in terms of normalcy, there was probably a congratulatory message."

Birthday wishes, after all, are customary. In 2019, Putin gave Xi Russian-made ice cream to celebrate his 66th birthday. The leaders were in the Central Asian country of Tajikistan at the time. They also had glasses of champagne together. Xi gave Putin Chinese tea in return, and a Chinese state-run television website posted a photo of the leaders in front of a cake with "66" written on it.

Xi Jinping has become wary of publicizing the number of anniversary wishes he has received from Vladimir Putin. In 2019, Xi celebrated his 66th birthday in Tajikistan with Putin and Russian ice cream. (Screenshot from CCTV)

In 2018, Putin bragged in an interview with China Central Television that he was probably the only world leader who was with Xi to celebrate a birthday. That was four years ago. Now, Xi's close personal relationship with Putin has come under increased international scrutiny due to Russia's actions in Ukraine.

Even if Putin had wished Xi a happy 69th birthday, China could not make public that congratulatory message. Doing so would be careless considering the global zeitgeist as Russia's military pummels Ukraine.

If a Biden-Xi phone call takes place in the near future, as the U.S. president has said, the Ukraine situation will become the main focus. Xi's recent remarks indicate he is eager to broker a ceasefire -- if the time is ripe. To that end, China needs open lines to the U.S. and Ukraine, as well as to Russia, so Xi and his team can have candid discussions with all concerned. 

While ordering Chinese diplomatic authorities to make preparations for his talks with Biden the top priority -- and ahead of his phone talks with Putin -- Xi dropped Le, the key figure in  China's pro-Russia diplomacy. In doing so, he in effect, took the selection process for China's next foreign minister back to square one.

One concrete takeaway from this development is that in the run-up to the party's national congress, the No. 1 priority in foreign policy is to rebuild Chinese diplomacy with the U.S.

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