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The Domestic Hazards in China’s Diplomacy

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China Power

The Domestic Hazards in China’s Diplomacy

China’s foreign policy decision-making process has serious flaws that need to be addressed.

The Domestic Hazards in China’s Diplomacy
Credit: Flickr/ Elliott Brown

Over the past few years, China’s international influence has expanded together with China’s comprehensive national strength. However, with this comes higher diplomatic risks, both at home and abroad.

As it is known diplomatic decision-making is based on incomplete information; therefore risks in the policy-making process are inevitable. The key is to minimize the possible hazards inherent in China’s domestic diplomacy, before, during, and after decisions are made.

The Risks Before Decision-Making

The collection and screening of relevant information is the basis of diplomatic decision-making. As has become customary in recent years, especially when major external events are involved, information is collected through meetings, interviews, and research reports from different professionals of different research agencies and academic backgrounds.

The key in this step is to ensure and identify the quality and potential shortcomings of these comments and suggestions. If critical information is lacking, it requires particular caution in decision-making.

At present China has several flaws its pre-decision-making step.

First, professionals from research institutes lack independent research and thus their input has information gaps. To be specific, nationalism affects the independence and objectivity of their research. This means China’s professionals dare not and/or are unable to conduct long-term and in-depth explorations into several significant diplomatic topics.

In addition, policy recommendations are constrained by bureaucratic interests. Sometimes some important information is intentionally neglected or “filtered out” either by researchers themselves or by the reviewers, due to their fear that the researching findings will be incompatible with current policy trends or the leadership’s preferences.

What’s more, currently the research reports from China’s various think tanks are not qualified enough to support a complex diplomatic policy. China lacks a developed connection between think tanks (especially emerging think tanks) and relevant governmental departments. If the research reports from the think tanks could be considered or even adopted into foreign policy-making, it will be a great incentive for these organizations to put out high-quality work.

China also lacks an authoritative and professional agency to summarize and shift through the large number of, yet often incomplete, policy recommendations, to identify several distinctive and complementary reports for top leadership. Unfortunately, there is no such competent division available, whether in the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, the National Security Commission, or the Foreign Affairs Leading Group.

The Risks During Decision-Making

Leaders’ decisions are often influences by a number of unique factors, including personality, ability, and even personal health. In the case of China, personality may have a major impact on decision-making. Each personality has its advantages and disadvantages.

President Xi Jinping may be the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. This implies that he has to tackle more diplomatic topics and make diplomatic decisions in a shorter period of time. Thanks to the issues mentioned above, the foreign policy recommendations submitted to him may be not high-quality summaries, but fragmented comments. This may lead Beijing unable to formulate a stable or systematic response to some issues.

In addition, as mentioned above, both researchers and bureaucrats intentionally or unintentionally weaken, sometimes even eliminate, some of the information and recommendations to better suit leaders’ inclinations. In the short term, this may be not a big problem, but in the long run it could lead to a systemic deviation of China’s foreign policy. For instance, the preference for a hard-line approach would easily increase national hard power yet weaken soft power; an increase of economic investment abroad also brings concerns from the host countries. In fact, currently it is necessary for China to adopt a somewhat assertive approach; however what’s more important is the accumulation of both hard and soft power toward big countries and small countries alike. This requires prudence on the frequency and intensity of hard-line approaches. In other words, restraint and conciliation would be China’s default means, so as to reduce external resistance and doubts.

Meanwhile, the limited influence of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in decision-making also limits China’s ability to formulate effective foreign policy. The foreign minister is neither a member of the Politburo nor a vice premier on the State Council, in contrast to some other sectors (especially the military) with higher level representation and thus a louder voice in leadership. Other voices usually have a stronger influence on diplomatic decision-making. Lack of MOFA representation to some extent has led to some ineffective recent diplomatic activities.

The Risks After Decision-Making

China’s foreign affairs departments are not high-ranking enough to make overall arrangements for foreign policy implementation. MOFA can only carry out the policies directly under its governance; when issues require cross-ministry coordination, MOFA can only give “briefings.” It has very limited influence over other relevant departments. In the past few years, a number of central leading groups have been set up to solve the problem of decentralization, slow reaction times, and inability to make decisions. These groups have been effective in improving the information collection and screening processes, yet not in implementing decisions.

Without an authoritative leading agency, the various departments involved in foreign policy tend to shirk responsibility while competing to claim any positive outcomes. Meanwhile, there is no method for evaluating progress toward stated foreign policy goals. At present, China has issued a number of policy documents (such as white papers), but has not yet established a standardized evaluation system for marking progress. In most cases, the occasional evaluation is largely impacted by the leadership’s preferences and the evaluator’s capability.

Such assessments should be more systematic, normative, objective, and accurate. China could learn from the U.S. National Security Strategy Report and the Quadrennial Defense Review Report in this regard. Furthermore, some individual diplomatic official’s improper responses have become another noteworthy issue in foreign affairs. Some blunt, rude, or even condescending speeches or behaviors have already affected China’s national image and its relationship with other countries, which calls for a change as soon as possible.

There are at least two reasons for this problem. First, some diplomatic officials have been encouraged by the examples of other departments have benefited from showing “muscle.” Second, once again MOFA’s low representation is an issue. It is the people from MOFA who are responsible for dealing with the negative impacts of these harmful speeches and behaviors. In this case, as the governmental agency that has the best understanding of the external situation, MOFA needs a louder voice and higher status in decision-making and implementation to prevent negative influence from other actors. In truth, China’s domestic risks are greater than external ones when it comes to foreign policy-making. These problems must be addressed if China is to achieve its peaceful rise.

Dr. Xue Li is Director of Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Dr. Xu Yanzhuo is a researcher at IWEP, CASS.