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In China, a Web of Actors Weave Foreign Policy

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China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

In China, a Web of Actors Weave Foreign Policy

Beijing is often framed as a unitary actor, but the reality is that many actors influence policy decisions.

In China, a Web of Actors Weave Foreign Policy
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

A CNN article published last Thursday reported that U.S. officials believe that the balloon which crossed over the United States in early February might be part of a broader intelligence surveillance program, but that President Xi Jinping might not have been aware of that specific operation.

While I do not have the information necessary to determine if Xi was aware or not, the reality is that while China is a one party state, its foreign policy does not belong to any single actor. The Chinese Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the provincial governments, among other actors, all have divergent interests and influences that affect how China acts and reacts to a particular event.

While decision-making and power in Mao’s China were extremely centralized, after Deng Xiaoping reforms, an increasing number of actors, each possessing a degree of autonomy, political power and the independent capacity to shape foreign policy became influential. And while these actors might have opposing objectives, the Chinese Communist Party relies on all of them for political and economic balance. Thus Xi Jinping and the CCP are unable to ignore their influence in China’s foreign policy.

This interdependence limits Xi in opposing an action from the People’s Liberation Army, or from provincial governments, when those actions are said to be taken in the name of Chinese sovereignty, even if such actions clash with Xi’s interests or those of the Chinese Communist Party. This clash between different actors in China is frequently witnessed in the South China Sea, where different actors invoke national interests in the search for their own gains, be it commercial profit, state financing, or political prestige.

While Xi has increasingly concentrated power around himself, leaders after Mao do not possess Mao’s absolute authority because they lack his revolutionary legitimacy as well as an absolute control over the People’s Liberation Army. The PLA has in turn enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy, regardless of any repercussions to Xi or the CCP.

The nature of the state in China limits the degree of action the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can take in the implementation and coordination of policies, while leaving the elaboration of policies to the Chinese Communist Party. The minister of foreign affairs is outranked by other officials and not always briefed on foreign policy decisions. For example, in 2012 when the Ministry of Public Security decided to roll out new passports that included disputed islands as part of Chinese territory, the minister of foreign affairs was not consulted. While the Central Military Commission and the State Council are on the same footing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not on the same level as the People’s Liberation Army, which means that it cannot condition PLA actions even when these have negative repercussions over Chinese foreign policy.

Contrary to other actors, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had aimed for a moderate approach to volatile issues in the South China Sea, as witnessed by the ministry’s disagreements with Chinese publications calling for an aggressive Chinese presence. However, the ministry’s stance hardened following public opinion in support of China’s ambitions, specifically after the Hainan Island incident and the sinking of a Vietnamese vessel in 2020.

The People’s Liberation Army is able to exert more influence due to its operational autonomy and the participation of its members in the media. While the PLA has a limited influence in the elaboration of China’s foreign policy through the official channels, the reality is that it enjoys a large degree of autonomy to decide how it will implement those policies. The PLA can take decisions on its own and with its own interests in mind. This is problematic considering the lack of coordination and oversight from civilians and the military, which allows the PLA to accentuate tensions for their own gain.

The PLA is also in an excellent position to shape public opinion, which in turn helps to influence the elaboration of China’s foreign policy. Military officers are often embedded in the media to provide their nationalist point of view, such as when retired Rear Admiral Luo Yuan called to bomb American aircraft carriers in the South China Sea or in the aftermath of the Hainan Island incident, when the Chinese military accused the United States of provoking the crash.

Despite the importance of Xi’s position, the Politburo Standing Committee has a central but complex part in the elaboration of matters of conflict. Members of the committee heavily debate decisions so that they are adopted by consensus, and yet the influence of outsiders is not outside the norm. Now retired General Xiong Guangkai, who had been in charge of military intelligence issues, played a key role in the Hainan Island incident, which resulted in the detainment of the U.S. crew. He wielded important influence for more than a decade, thanks to a decision-making system that values the acquisition of information from different sources, and which, tied with a complex system of deliberation, complicates a united response in terms of foreign policy.

As a result of the decentralization experienced after Deng Xiaoping, provincial governments have turned into more powerful actors. The importance of provincial governments is further enhanced by the fact that provincial party secretaries have more or less the same rank as some ministers of the central government. Up to six provincial secretaries of the Chinese Communist Party are members of the Politburo and thus hold a higher rank than the State Council, which deliberates questions of foreign policy.

From around 2002, as China was internationalizing, the provinces were encouraged to build and maintain relationships with other regions in Southeast Asia. While this has allowed China to fulfill two competing objectives, economic growth while defending territorial ambitions, it also increased the autonomy of provincial governments, whose actions in foreign policy sometimes do not match the interests of the central government. In 2012, even though it sought to reduce tensions with Vietnam, the Chinese government accepted a petition from Hainan province to elevate the status of Sansha, the Chinese administrative unit covering the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, in the background of a Vietnamese maritime law.

Due to the nature of the political regime in China, it is frequently interpreted by the outside world as a uniform and unitary actor, when in reality the picture is far more complicated. While Xi Jinping and the Politburo Standing Committee exert the most influence, it is undeniable that there are many actors at play, which affect how China takes a decision abroad — including the decision to send an alleged surveillance balloon across the U.S. mainland days ahead of a planned visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.