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The 3 Pillars of Chinese Foreign Policy: The State, the Party, the People

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The 3 Pillars of Chinese Foreign Policy: The State, the Party, the People

China’s foreign policy apparatus is much more than just the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The 3 Pillars of Chinese Foreign Policy: The State, the Party, the People

China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, during a 2014 meeting at the Pentagon.

Credit: U.S. Department of Defense photo

During the Cold War, the American foreign policy establishment had to develop comprehensive mechanisms to counter Soviet influence campaigns. Not only did the United States need a robust State Department to engage in traditional state-centric diplomacy, but also sophisticated intelligence-gathering networks, global military strategies, and long-term soft power operations. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, countries have primarily reoriented their diplomatic energies back to a traditional state-centric approach. Today, this is chiefly where the United States remains. However, in the face of a rising China, the United States and its allies need to develop a more nuanced approach to interacting with Chinese foreign policy.

The aim of Chinese foreign policy is to help secure and legitimize one-party rule in China. They have three leading institutions to promote that goal: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the International Liaison Department, and the United Front Work Department. Each plays a unique role in supporting the longevity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The State

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is the most prominent body for Chinese foreign policy, in charge of conducting state-to-state diplomacy. However, despite being the corresponding institution to the U.S. State Department, the two should not be equated. While the State Department is at the core of the U.S. foreign policymaking process, the MFA has been resigned to provide the logistical skeleton for foreign policy implementation and messaging. For example, Foreign Minister Wang Yi is not China’s highest-ranking diplomat. In fact, Wang is not even a member of the powerful Politburo Committee. That honorific is reserved for Yang Jiechi, the chair of the CCP’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission, the top foreign policymaking body.

The Central Foreign Affairs Commission, formed in 2018, was a creation of Xi Jinping in order to exert more personal and party influence over foreign policymaking. It is at this body that the CCP’s interests are debated and prioritized. That left the MFA largely isolated from the policymaking process and it now acts as the critical operational arm of the CCP. The MFA will continue to play an integral role in Chinese foreign policy as it executes Xi Jinping’s priorities. However, an analysis that relies solely on the MFA will be inadequate; expanding the scope to include other institutions will allow for a more comprehensive investigation of Chinese foreign policy.

The Party

While the MFA conducts foreign policy for the state, the party has its own department to promote a separate foreign policy agenda. The CCP’s International Liaison Department (ILD) gets very little attention in foreign media, despite its critical role in supporting the CCP. While the MFA conducts traditional state-to-state diplomacy, the ILD conducts the quiet diplomacy of party-to-party interactions.

The ILD plays an important and unique strategic role in CCP diplomacy. Historically, it was used to promote ties with other communist and socialist parties. Today the mandate has broadened to include all political parties. It is tasked with identifying ambitious and talented politicians within ruling and opposition parties for the purpose of building support for Chinese foreign policy aims.

One of the ILD’s priorities is creating global popular support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is an ambitious project announced in 2013, designed to boost the Chinese economy. It encompasses many components, but at the core, it uses large-scale infrastructure loans to export domestic overcapacity and create new markets for manufactured Chinese goods. In December, the ILD held a large virtual conference meant to promote the BRI. The conference boasted many high-profile attendees, including several former prime ministers. These outreach programs are frequent and designed to target influential personalities whom the CCP can rely on to promote China’s interests.

The ILD utilizes several mechanisms; one of the most successful is cadre training. Cadre training is a crucial component to ILD influence operations. Buttressed by free trips to China, program funding, and professional training courses, the ILD attracts politicians and media members to undergo propaganda training. For example, in 2014 and 2015, about 2,000 officials of South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), which has governed the country continuously since 1994, received political training courses by the CCP. The CCP even contributed funds to the ANC’s party school, modeled on a similar leadership academy in Shanghai. Additionally, the ILD sends state-run media companies like Xinhua to train and administer other state-run media organizations. This program ensures that foreign domestic audiences in other countries are not engaging with critical stories of the CCP and instead are reading about the benefits of the BRI.

The ILD conducts what Dr. David Shambaugh has called a “quiet diplomacy.” Their trips, delegations, and conferences do not come with the official adornments that follow ambassadors. However, their work is just as essential and result in long-term gains. The U.S.-China competition is multi-dimensional, and understanding the work of the ILD is crucial.

The People

The final and most complex foreign policy operation conducted by the CCP is the efforts of the United Front Work Department (UFWD). The UFWD plays a unique and ambitious role in China’s foreign policy strategy. While the MFA targets the state and the ILD targets the party, the UFWD targets the people. Often referred to as one of China’s “magic weapons,” the UFWD encompasses several CCP and governmental divisions. The Overseas Chinese Affairs Office is the most insidious. One of their mandates is to reach out to the 40 million-strong Chinese diaspora, mostly centered in Southeast Asia, but not exclusively.

For example, in the United States, the UFWD goes to great length to control the narrative within Chinese language newspapers. This has resulted in articles highlighting Xi Jinping’s leadership and downplaying the deaths of human rights activists like Liu Xiaobo. The goal of this strategy is simple: to create domestic demand for pro-CCP policies. In a recent speech to the National Council on U.S.-China Relations, Yang Jiechi stated an often repeated line that China does not interfere in other countries’ domestic affairs. However, the UFWD was created precisely for that purpose.

Another critical element is the utilization of China’s Red Capitalists. Red Capitalists were initially thought to be the professional business class that would reform the CCP from within and usher China into a democracy. Today, Red Capitalists are spread worldwide to do the party’s bidding in the business world.

During the reform era, party influence within private enterprises was superficial. Today, the domestic wing of the UFWD is forcing strict ideological indoctrination of private companies. As private Chinese companies become more suspectable to state intervention, countries will be more vulnerable to tech theft, national security vulnerabilities, and CCP demands. Companies like Huawei and TikTok are perfect examples of how private corporations can be used for party ends.

While the UFWD is getting more attention within the academic literature, large media companies and policymakers have yet to understand this institution’s importance. The UFWD has a rapidly growing mandate with the political backing to support it. It is a crucial pillar of CCP foreign policy and deserves further investigation.


While scholars continue to debate whether the United States and China are in a new cold war, the fact remains that the two countries have entered into some form of long-term competition. Due to the nature of China’s rise, the competition is more multifaceted than the competition with the Soviet Union. To compete with China, the United States needs to develop a more comprehensive understanding of Chinese foreign policy institutions. This article was designed to elevate the visibility of two key Chinese foreign policy pillars that are often not mentioned. The ILD and UFWD will expand as China’s ambitions grow. Understanding their goals and mechanisms now can help the United States down the road.

Connor Fiddler is a graduate student at George Washington University focusing on U.S. national security and Chinese foreign policy. His writing has appeared in Real Clear Politics, Fair Observer, and The Defense Post, among others.