Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang is unwell and a senior diplomat will take his place at a two-day summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this week in Jakarta, Indonesia, the country’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin gave no details of what was ailing Qin, who has not been seen in public in more than two weeks. Yet it is rare for China to even admit that a senior leader is unwell.
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“State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang is unable to attend this series of foreign ministers’ meetings due to health reasons,” Wang said at a daily briefing.
Wang Yi, a former foreign minister and current head of the ruling Communist Party’s Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, will represent China at the meetings on Thursday and Friday, spokesperson Wang said.
Wang Yi drew controversy last week with comments saying Westerners are incapable of distinguishing between Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, and suggesting the three countries with vastly different societies and polities form an alliance based on racial and cultural similarities. Wang will attend the China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting, the ASEAN-China-Japan-South Korea foreign ministers’ meeting, the East Asia Summit foreign ministers’ meeting and the ASEAN Regional Forum foreign ministers’ meeting.
China has sought to engage the 10 members of ASEAN, mainly through trade, as part of a campaign to dilute US influence in the region and challenge the American-led liberal world order.
However, China’s influence has been limited by its aggressive assertion of its claim to virtually all of the South China Sea. ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines exercise overlapping claims and have largely welcomed the United States’ military presence in the region. China denounces US involvement as outside meddling.
The foreign ministers’ meeting is a “platform to enhance mutual trust and cooperation”, Wang Wenbin told reporters. “China hopes this meeting will help build more consensus, make political preparation for a fruitful ASEAN leaders’ summit in September, and promote regional peace, stability and prosperity.”
Qin, 57, rose to prominence as an outspoken ministry spokesperson who popularised an aggressive in-your-face style that came to be known as “wolf warrior diplomacy”, after the name of a nationalistic Chinese movie franchise. He previously served as ambassador to Washington and head of protocol for the ministry.
In March, Qin warned Washington of “conflict and confrontation”, striking a combative tone amid conflicts over Taiwan, COVID-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That followed an accusation by President Xi Jinping that Western governments led by the US wanted to encircle and suppress China.
According to the foreign ministry’s website, Qin’s last public appearance was at a meeting with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabry in Beijing on June 25.
The “wolf warrior” approach has been adopted by many senior Chinese diplomats, but has also fallen out of favour at times. One of its most famous exponents, former ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, was transferred in January to a department overseeing land and sea borders in what was widely seen as a demotion.
Chinese Ambassador to the US Xie Feng has taken a generally upbeat tone since taking office in May, despite the relationship between the world’s two largest economies hitting a historic low.
China’s tightly-controlled, highly opaque political system and the lack of a free press frequently give way to speculation surrounding the disappearance of leading figures, as when former Chinese President Hu Jintao was guided off stage without explanation at the twice-a-decade congress of the Communist Party.
However, while personal rivalries and scandals over corruption are not uncommon, the party – at least outwardly – remains largely united behind Xi.