In relativity, the energy of a moving particle depends on the observer, and the rest mass is the minimal energy seen among all observers. The Wang–Yau quasi-local mass for a surface in spacetime introduced in Wang and Yau (Phys Rev Lett 102(2):021101, 2009 ; Commun Math Phys 288(3):919–942, 2009) is defined by minimizing quasi-local energy associated with admissible isometric embeddings of the surface into the Minkowski space. A critical point of the quasi-local energy is an isometric embedding satisfying the Euler–Lagrange equation. In this article, we prove results regarding both local and global minimizing properties of critical points of the Wang–Yau quasi-local energy. In particular, under a condition on the mean curvature vector we show a critical point minimizes the quasi-local energy locally. The same condition also implies that the critical point is globally minimizing among all axially symmetric embedding provided the image of the associated isometric embedding lies in a totally geodesic Euclidean 3-space.