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Actors in the foreign policy process

in China

ASIA 528

China’s International Relations and Foreign Policy

Instructor: Derya Yurdakul

Abstract

As a direct result of China’s growing interdependence with the international community and the

pluralization of Chinese society Chinese foreign policy decision 26.12.


making2015
is becoming

increasingly multilayered. The Communist Party’s highest body Politburo Standing Committee

remains the ultimate decision making actor yet there are new foreign policy actors emerging on

CONTENTS
the margins of traditional power structure vying for their voices to be heard. This paper will

explore growing involvement of diverse actors associated with foreign policy making in China

today. The paper will further shed light on who makes Chinese foreign policy formulation on

what reasoning.

08.01.2016

BOGAZICI UNIVERSITY
MASTER OF ARTS PROGRAM IN ASIAN STUDIES

10.01.2016

1
Introduction

Over the past thirty years, China’s global interests has increased substantially and its

foreign policy has become more visible to the outside world. Even though China’s global

political influence is still limited1, for many Western observers, it is undoubtedly a global

actor who makes many wonder what kind of behaviour it will demonstrate in the time of

crises.2

As a direct result of China’s growing interdependence with the international

community and the pluralization of Chinese society Chinese foreign policy decision making is

becoming increasingly multilayered.3 The Communist Party’s highest body Politburo

Standing Committee remains the ultimate decision making actor yet there are new foreign

policy actors emerging on the margins of traditional power structure.

This paper will explore growing involvement of diverse actors associated with foreign

policy making in China today. The paper will further shed light on who makes Chinese

foreign policy formulation on what reasoning.

A number of significant points emerging from this paper’s subject is following: First

China’s foreign policy process takes place within the party system among a narrow elite and

due to the opaque nature of the Chinese state it is difficult to distinguish who and how exactly

influences foreign policy making. Second, as a result of decentralization of power over the

past three decades it is no longer possible to think of China’s decision makers as monolithic

including those in the field of foreign affairs. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not the sole

actor in the realm of foreign policy and it is more of a “window-function”.4 Third, although

the senior leadership, particularly Politburo Standing Committee, is the final arbiter of foreign
1
Erwin Blaauw, “The Driving Forces Behind China’s Foreign Policy – Has China Become More Assertive?”,
Rabobank Economic Research, October 2013, p. 1.
2
Yufan Hao and Ying Hou, “Chinese Foreign Policy Making: A Comparative Perspective”, Public
Administration Review, Vol. 69, Supplement to Volume 69: Comparative Chinese/American Public
Administration, December 2009, p. S136.
3
Linda Jacobson and Dean Knox. “New Foreign Policy Actors in China”, Stockholm International Peace
Research Institute Policy Paper, 26 September 201, p. VI.
4
Blaauw, p. 4.

2
policy Ministry of Commerce, the People’s Liberation Army, the People’s Bank of China

have emerged as influential foreign policy players. Fourth, due to the growth in civil society

and the development of internet the Chinese state elite has begun to pay more attention to

public opinion in foreign policy formulations.

Although China’s global influence has spread substantially the extent and impact of

the rise of China is yet to be explored. At a time when China’s cooperation is vital in

international matters it is becoming increasingly urgent to understand leading voices in

decision making for outside observers.

Due to the non-transparent nature of the Chinese state the information on its foreign

policy motivations and decision making processes are limited. For this reason in recent years

foreign policy making process in China become the subject of close scrutiny by various

scholars. Recent scholarly researches on China’s foreign policy demonstrates that the

principal actors, inputs and processes associated with its foreign policy making has gradually

evolved. During the Mao era the foreign policy decision making was highly centralized and to

a great extent reflected Mao’s personal will. 5 This is still valid to a certain extent yet under

Deng Xiaoping’s reforms foreign policy making process was institutionalized and the

individual choices of strong leaders has been less dominant. Moreover, Hao and Hou argue,

The country's foreign policy making has become less personal, less radical, less
ideological, and more pragmatic and sophisticated. China’s national interests are
more specifically defined, and the pursuit of those interests has become more
realistic and flexible. Especially since it joined the World Trade Organization,
China has significantly increased its participation in the international community
and integrated itself into the global economy at large. An emerging civil society
pays increasing attention to China's domestic and foreign affairs. In this context,
Chinese foreign policy making - which has long been considered politics reserved
for a small number of leaders- is giving way to a more pluralized practice.6

5
Hao and Hou, p. S139.
6
Hao and Hou, p. S140

3
Despite Chinese foreign policy decision making is becoming increasingly multilayered

as a result of its increasing integration with the international system China remains an

authoritarian state with a single party. In the highly centralized political structure of China,

the CCP’s authority is supreme and it is the main arbiter in foreign policy decision making

“framing the strategic and macro-level guidelines, principles, and policies on the basis of the

ideology and political theories of the CCP”.7 At the apex of the CCP, the Politburo Standing

Committee, despite its changing functions and structures from time to time, retains the

ultimate authority to define China’s core national interests and to dictate the content of

Chinese policy. The Politburo is the highest decision making body and the seven member

team of the Standing Committee of the Politburo is the core of China’s leadership. This

leading nucleus of the Standing Committee, particularly the President and the Prime Minister,

and the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALSG) wields the ultimate foreign policy

decision making power in China because they assume a de facto authority to veto or ratify

decisions made by the Politburo.8

Since most members of the Politburo Standing Committee do not have comprehensive

knowledge of the details of complex foreign policy matters the expertise of the FALSG

specialists are crucial. The State Councillor, CPC International Department Head, the Foreign

Minister, the Minister of Commerce, the Minister of Defence and the Minister of State

Security are on the fore among FALSG members. The research and policy proposals of the

FALSG are crucial in day-to day affairs of foreign policy making.9

As Jacobson and Knox points out, power and influence is determined by party rank. In

this sense the Head of the Party’s International Department is higher in party hierarchy than

Foreign Minister. Although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs continues to be a central agency

7
Hao and Hou, p. S137.
8
David M. Lampton, The Making of Chinese Foreign and Security Policy in the Era of Reform, Stanford
University Press, 2001, p. 41.
9
Jacobson and Knox, p. 5-6.

4
holding overall control of foreign policy implementations its power as a policy maker has

considerably declined over the past decade. 10

In this regard, China’s foreign policy can be best described as a combination of the

foreign components of other policies. 11


The People’s Liberation Army’s viewpoint is crucial

on decisions regarding defence related foreign policy issues: arms control, territorial disputes,

national security towards countries such as India, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the USA.

The Ministry of Commerce allocates majority of Chinese foreign aid and it is influential in all

issues affecting foreign trade. Other government bodies such as the People’s Bank of China

which is the central bank to dictate domestic monetary policy, the Ministry of Finance which

controls the national budget, the Ministry of State Security whose position is strengthening

due to Xinjiang and Tibet issues are considered to be increasingly powerful domestic actors

vying for influence over foreign policy formulation along with Ministry of Foreign Affairs.12

Figure 1: Actors in the foreign policy process in China

Source: David Shambaugh, cited in Erwin Blaauw, “The Driving Forces Behind China’s Foreign Policy – Has
China Become More Assertive?”, Rabobank Economic Research, October 2013.

10
Jacobson and Knox, p. 8.
11
Blaauw, p. 4.
12
Jacobson and Knox, p. 10-12.

5
However most crucial foreign policy decisions and major shifts in foreign policy

orientation are generally still subject to deliberations by the full Politburo.13 The agenda and

deliberations of Politburo, its Standing Committee and Leading Small Groups are considered

sensitive and not being made to public.

One central theme in scholarly debates revolving around the Chinese foreign policy

actors is the problem of fracturing authority and coordination in Chinese foreign policy which

makes it difficult to set a cohesive policy course.14 Thomas J. Christensen asserts that China

lacks a grand strategy and its foreign policy is too often unguided and uncoordinated at the

top.15 On the other hand, arguably, the reactive characteristic of Chinese foreign policy which

is revealed in the matters regarding the United States and regional neighbors suggests to

outside observers that time to time Chinese foreign policy behavior might be changing course

in an unpredictable way.16

Along with the official ones, today China’s policy is being shaped by a number of new

actors who are not part of the CCP or the govenment bureaucracy, including state owned

enterprises, financial institutions, energy companies, think tanks, elite and military analysts,

university based scholars. Those actors do not necessarily seek an active role in foreign policy

making however some of these interest groups use media and internet to create a political

environment and heat the debate for controversial issues. Jacobson and Knox reveals that it is

no longer possible to think that China’s decision makers as monolithic. Further arguably, on

any given issue policymakers abroad can no longer deal solely with the MFA and must

13
Lampton, p. 42.
14
Gilbert Rozman (ed.), Introduction, China’s Foreign Policy: Who Makes It, and How Is It Made?, Palgrave
Macmillan, 2013, p. 10-17.
15
Thomas J. Christensen, “More Actors Less Coordination New Challenges for the Leaders of a Rising China”,
in China’s Foreign Policy: Who Makes It, and How Is It Made?, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, p. 23.
16
Thomas J. Christensen, “More Actors Less Coordination New Challenges for the Leaders of a Rising China”,
in China’s Foreign Policy: Who Makes It, and How Is It Made?, p. 32-33.

6
instead take into account potential interests of multiple actors who have both a stake and a say

in the decision making processes.17

State owned enterprises are one of such new actors striving to influence foreign policy

decision making processes. Due to the extensive overseas activities of SOEs in strategic

industries such as petroleum, minerals, nuclear power, defense their impact on policies

towards states where China’s commercial interest is at the fore has been growing.18 In a same

manner the role of two major government-controlled financial institutions namely the Export-

Import Bank of China and the China Development Bank, is increasingly significant in the

policy formation process related to trade and investment due to their essential tasks in

expanding Chinese trade and promoting Chinese economic and infrastructure development.19

Other new actors such as local governments with international economic ties, researchers,

media figures, netizens and the general public also vie for their voices to be heard. 20

For a long time public opinion was viewed as irrelevant in the study of Chinese

foreign policy. However in controversial topics in the field of foreign affairs, the Chinese

government, according to Thomas J. Christensen, in an effort to maintain long term

legitimacy and social stability began to take public opinion into consideration. This is a direct

result of the growth in the number of media outlets through which Chinese citizens can voice

their feelings and opinions, and the increasing sensitivity of the government to public opinion

in times of crises.21 Chinese leadership seems to try to control and further manipulate the

rising nationalist sensation of Chinese civil society, on one hand, to maintain their reputation

as protectors of national pride and domestic stability, on the other hand, to justify their

positions by citing public opinion in particular matters including China’s US and Japan

17
Jacobson and Knox, p. 49.
18
Jacobson and Knox, p. 24.
19
Jacobson and Knox, p. 28.
20
Jacobson and Knox, p. 49.
21
Thomas J. Christensen, “The Advantages of an Assertive China: Responding to Beijing's Abrasive
Diplomacy”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 90, No. 2, March/April 2011, p 60.

7
policies.22 However, nationalist sensation is a double-edged sword for Chinese leaders today,

which enable to strengthen state cohesion in foreign policy decisions but at the same time it

provides a safer ground for domestic voices to criticize government from a hawkish

perspective and to challenge the legitimacy of the regime.23

This paper sought to highlihght the institutional structure guiding China’s overall

foreign diplomacy. The paper suggests that despite the ultimate authority still lies in the hands

of central leadership the influence of several interest groups along with official actors appears

to be on the rise in the field of foreign affairs. Moreover, due to the growth in civil society and

the development of internet the Chinese state elite has begun to pay more attention to public

opinion.

22
Jacobson and Knox, p. 1.
23
Thomas J. Christensen, “The Advantages of an Assertive China: Responding to Beijing's Abrasive
Diplomacy”, p. 61; Hao and Hou, p. S139.

8
Bibliography
Blaauw, Erwin. “The Driving Forces Behind China’s Foreign Policy – Has China Become
More Assertive?”, Rabobank Economic Research, October 2013. Available at:
https://economics.rabobank.com/publications/2013/october/the-driving-forces-behind-chinas-
foreign-policy-has-china-become-more-assertive/

Christensen, Thomas J. “The Advantages of an Assertive China: Responding to Beijing's


Abrasive Diplomacy”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 90, No. 2, March/April 2011, pp. 54-67.
Available through: Bogazici University Library website
<http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/25800457.pdf>

Hao, Yufan and Ying Hou, “Chinese Foreign Policy Making: A Comparative Perspective”,
Public Administration Review, Vol. 69, Supplement to Volume 69: Comparative
Chinese/American Public Administration, December 2009, pp. S136-S141. Available
through: Bogazici University Library website <www.jstor.org/stable/40469084>

Jacobson, Linda and Dean Knox. “New Foreign Policy Actors in China”, Stockholm
International Peace Research Institute Policy Paper, No. 26, September 2010. Available at:
http://books.sipri.org/files/PP/SIPRIPP26.pdf

Lampton, David M. The Making of Chinese Foreign and Security Policy in the Era of Reform,
Stanford University Press, 2001.

Rozman, Gilbert. (ed.) China’s Foreign Policy: Who Makes It, and How Is It Made?,
Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Web resources

Shirk, Susan. “What China’s Lack of Transparency Means for U.S. Policy”, China File, May
28 2015. Available at:< https://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/two-way-street/what-
chinas-lack-transparency-means-us-policy>