China Power

The Problems With China’s Foreign Policy Bureaucracy

Recent Features

China Power

The Problems With China’s Foreign Policy Bureaucracy

China’s foreign policy is hampered by bureaucratic restraints.

The Problems With China’s Foreign Policy Bureaucracy

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

Credit: U.S. Department of State

China’s foreign policy agenda will change significantly as it implements its “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) strategy. Not only will the number of departments involved greatly increase, but the field for proactive initiatives will expand. However, as foreign policy is made with incomplete information, it’s likely that the chances of mistakes in China’s policymaking process will also rise.

Since it is impossible to avoid policymaking mistakes, it’s a more realistic goal to reduce the number of mistakes by improving the collection and analysis of relevant information, strengthening the selection and summary of policy suggestions, and enhancing the quality of policymaking. This article will deal with the problems facing China’s foreign policy decision making. We will make suggestions for improving the process in tomorrow’s piece.

The U.S. has a well-developed foreign policymaking mechanism, where the government departments (and sometimes specialized agencies) are responsible for collecting and analyzing information and giving policy advice. Meanwhile, professional institutions (mainly think tanks) provide policy suggestions. The National Security Council and Cabinet will select, judge, and summarize the numerous policy suggestions, then form and recommend several plans for the president. The president then makes the final choice.

In contrast, China’s foreign policymaking mechanism has flaws in each step of the process: the collection and analysis of information, the selection and summary of policy suggestions, and the decision making.

Research and Analysis

In terms of research and analysis, each agency and its affiliated institutions have exclusive information relating to their own specialty (just as in the U.S.). Policy suggestions are often based on the agency’s own interests or its leaders’ concerns, particularly in China. There just aren’t enough capable, independent, and professional researchers in the Foreign Ministry (MOFA) and the International Department of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee (IDCC), and those with talent aren’t being used to the fullest extent.

Specialized research institutions previously affiliated with the IDCC split off in the 1970s and 1980s. This led to a lack of research support just as the IDCC resumed large-scale diplomatic efforts in the 1990s (especially party-to-party diplomacy).

At the same time, MOFA, to some extent, faces a similar lack of research institutions and specialists. It has three major research institutions: the Department of Policy Planning (DPP), the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) and China Foreign Affairs University (CFAU).

The DPP, although in theory responsible for research, actually makes little commitment to research. Because there are no ‘ trivial ‘ issues in diplomacy, the limited number of DPP personnel are kept busy dealing with diplomatic affairs.

Compared to DPP, CIIS and CFAU have stronger research capabilities and often participate in fieldwork assigned by MOFA. CIIS focuses on policy analysis and provides internal reports, but it only has a few dozen researchers and has less comprehensive influence than its counterpart with the Ministry of State Security, the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). CFAU engages in both policy analysis and theoretical research and has made outstanding contributions to IR theory and methodology. However, their affiliation to MOFA has limited both of these institutions’ ability to provide comprehensive diplomatic policy suggestions, especially when the results may go against the interests of MOFA.

Being independent of MOFA, other professional research organizations have started to play their role through a few prestigious scholars who provide policy advice. However, this advice is often made on the basis of the scholar’s personal knowledge and experience rather than based on empirical research projects.

We’ve started to see some commissioned research projects, but they face two limitations. One, researchers can hardly provide deep thinking and analysis in a limited time; sometimes the reports are submitted as a quick, initial response. We often see this phenomenon in political studies. Two, the commissioning department has a clear bias for certain research results. Sometimes, the projects only serve as an academic endorsement for the patron’s arguments. We often see this in economic studies and projects commissioned by local governments.


Regarding the policymaking process, top leaders don’t choose between a few proposals with clear distinguishing features, presented in order of preference. Instead, they often make decisions based on their awareness of certain problems and the research they authorized on that subject. Research authorized by leaders often paints an incomplete picture. Leaders are also faced with large number of incomplete policy suggestions or are lobbied by certain departments and political elites. Under these circumstances, leaders find it hard to choose among numerous suggestions while the lobbying sides do not consider the national interests as a whole. In general, the foreign policymaking process is incoherent.

The key problem is the lack of a “policy suggestion and selection agency,” meaning a department that is responsible for selecting, summarizing, and judging all kinds of policy suggestions.

In theory, the Office of Foreign Affairs of the CPC Central Committee could play this selection role; however, in practice, considering its status, it can only serve as an implementation agency. By contrast, the Foreign Affairs Leading Group has a high enough administrative rank and is broadly representative, but as a non-permanent agency it cannot function regularly as a policy selection and summary body. The Policy Research Office of the CPC Central Committee, whose entrusted responsibility is “policy design and related theoretical research,” can only partly fulfill the task. Meanwhile, the National Security Commission was expected to shoulder this responsibility, yet in practice it tends to focus on domestic affairs.

Additionally, the foreign minister’s administrative level is not high enough to allow him to select policy suggestions. In a party-led decision making system, the state councilor, who is responsible for foreign affairs, serves as the top figure, yet even he is not one of the 25 Politburo members. In China’s bureaucratic system, the state councilor does not make the top 30, and the foreign minister has an even lower status. As a result, the MOFA has been downgraded from “decision makers” to “policy implementers.” The IDCC and other foreign affairs agencies face similar issues.

The Problem of Rank

Because China lacks a systemic mechanism for policymaking, in practice, each cadre’s political status, administrative level, and relationship with top leaders all have an impact on decision making. Members of the Politburo, particularly the two vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission and the secretary of Commission for Political and Legal Affairs, have a much more significant impact on decision making. Due to their occupations, they tend to adopt a tougher approach, which MOFA is unable to argue with. In the past few years, several ineffective diplomatic actions (some even taken without notifying MOFA) can be attributed to these factors.

In the OBOR, China is committed to building a regional and global mechanism, which inevitably requires the cooperation of the many relevant countries. In a peaceful era, inter-state cooperation relies on a large amount of profitable exchanges and mutual compromise, which is the major priority and agenda of the MOFA and Ministry of Commerce. However, due to the foreign minister’s limited influence, it is hard for him to negotiate profitable exchanges and the effective concessions required for compromise, which would form the basis for policy suggestions to top leaders. It must be said that this is a major reason for China’s slow pace in providing regional and global public goods.

Part II: Suggestions for improving China’s foreign policy decision making process.

Dr. Xue Li is Director of the Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Xu Yanzhuo received her doctorate from Durham University (UK) in December 2014 and studies international responsibility, South China Sea disputes, and Chinese foreign policy.