What Will China’s New National Security Council Do?

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What Will China’s New National Security Council Do?

The Third Plenum wasn’t entirely about economic reform as expected.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Americans should be quite flattered this week: one of the outcomes of China’s much-discussed Third Plenum was the formation of a security committee modeled on the National Security Council (NSC) of the United States. According to the New York Times, "experts said took inspiration from the National Security Council that serves American presidents.” The committee is codified towards the end of a rather lengthy communiqué issued by the Communist Party of China.

Bloomberg quotes a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, as saying that this new council "should make terrorists, extremists and separatists nervous.” He adds, "Anyone who would disrupt or sabotage China’s national security should be nervous.” It’s unclear if the second sentence is directed at China’s neighbors and possibly the United States.

In an interview with Bloomberg, M. Taylor Fravel, a China expert and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said that the idea of a Chinese NSC is not new: "There’s been talk of establishing an NSC-like body for coordinating national security policy for over a decade.” 

Gregory Kulacki, a China analyst over at All Things Nuclear, notes that the language used in the CCP’s communiqué on the formation of the council indicates that it is intended for the preservation of internal stability and security – not national defense. Indeed, the move could be intended to bolster internal security and maintain the PRC’s territorial integrity in light of threats to its rule from its peripheral provinces – including Tibet and Xinjiang. The addition of an NSC-esque body could be an attempt to consolidate China’s counterterrorism operations at the highest levels of government.

This new Chinese NSC will surely address internal security challenges. Another function could be greater information-sharing between several branches of the PRC’s government. At times, there has been a remarkable disconnect between the activities of the PLA and China’s political leadership and Foreign Ministry. For example, in 2011, during then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ visit to Beijing, China tested a stealth fighter apparently without the knowledge of President Hu Jintao (who is also head of the Central Military Committee). The establishment of a national security council could lead to greater information sharing between the PLA, the Central Committee, and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Beyond this incident with Gates, there have been episodes where China’s diplomats have been entirely oblivious to PLA activities

It is unknown as of now what specifically the relationship of the new NSC will be with the already-existing Central Military Committee, which administers the PLA, with Xi Jinping at its helm. With tensions rising over China’s territorial disputes with India, Japan, and with Southeast Asian states over the South China Sea, increased information-sharing and coordinated decision-making between Beijing and the rank-and-file of the PLA could be the deciding factor between a diplomatic incident and an accidental military skirmish. 

Readers of The Diplomat might recall China’s “Document 9” memo earlier this year that condemned Western ideas. While the move toward economic liberalization and an embrace of market-reforms after the Third Plenum has done little to make that memo look like anything but rhetoric and hypocrisy, the formation of this NSC somewhat complicates the picture. Looking at the broader political situation in China after the Third Plenum, the formation of this national security body can be read as an uptick in Beijing’s authoritarianism; when coupled with China’s unprecedented swing towards neoliberal market-based reform, we have an unprecedented political situation in China – more economic freedom than ever combined with a political and security crackdown. The formation of the committee has already drawn warm responses from China’s surveillance firms.

The Diplomat will be keeping a close eye on this council, with updates to come as more information becomes available about its function in China’s security apparatus. In the meantime, investors disappointed in the lack of concrete information about economic reforms after the Third Plenum might do well to invest in Chinese surveillance and security firms – the Wall Street Journal reports that their value is up after the Third Plenum communiqué.