Qian joined the Communist Party of China in 1942. After leaving school in 1955, he served as a diplomat in Moscow and other places. He served for a while as ambassador to Guinea. He went to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1977 and was vice-minister of foreign affairs from 1982–1988 and minister from 1988–1998. He was Vice Premier of the State Council from 1993 until he retired in 2003.
During his tenure as China's Foreign Minister, he was the first Chinese diplomat to attend an ASEAN event, going to the 1991 ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Malaysia. This marked the first time China formally acknowledged ASEAN as an institution and laid the groundwork for future ASEAN-China cooperation, like the ASEAN+3 mechanism and the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA).