China Power

More Than MOFA: China’s Comprehensive Diplomacy

Recent Features

China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

More Than MOFA: China’s Comprehensive Diplomacy

The overarching goal of comprehensive diplomacy is to mobilize and coordinate various party-state agencies to advance China’s national strategic and diplomatic objectives.

More Than MOFA: China’s Comprehensive Diplomacy
Credit: Photo 143140472 | China Flag © Danflcreativo |

China’s “comprehensive diplomacy” refers to the totality of collective foreign interactions orchestrated under the leadership of the top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership. This encompasses diplomatic activities conducted not only by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but also by other government agencies and government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs). These efforts aim to foster overall and comprehensive interactions with other nations, thereby promoting international relations. The overarching goal of comprehensive diplomacy is to mobilize and coordinate various party-state agencies to advance China’s national strategic and diplomatic objectives.

China’s Foreign Policy Bureaucracy

The CCP leadership utilizes Leadership Small Groups (LSGs) to coordinate various government agencies throughout the policymaking and policy implementation processes. LSGs are ad-hoc organizations established to facilitate cooperation among different functional bureaucracies that typically share the same rank level. These groups are frequently headed by a higher-ranking official and possess the authority to issue binding orders to the diverse membership agencies and ministries involved. 

The Central Foreign Affairs Commission, previously known as the Central Foreign Affairs Leadership Small Group until Xi Jinping elevated it to commission status in 2018, serves as the paramount coordination and decision-making body for Chinese foreign policy. At the helm of the commission is Xi himself, the top leader of the CCP. Other influential members include the premier, China’s vice president, director of the Foreign Affairs Commission Office, the ministers of foreign affairs, defense, public security, state security, commerce; and the heads of various key CCP departments such as the International Liaison Department. Additionally, directors from offices overseeing Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau affairs, as well as the State Council Information Office and Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, are represented, collectively reflecting a broad spectrum of bureaucratic interests within the Chinese government.

The Foreign Affairs Commission holds ultimate decision-making authority in China’s foreign policy process. Moreover, the Commission’s office, overseen by a state councilor, possesses the mandate to execute the Commission’s decisions. The director of the Commission’s office – currently diplomat Wang Yi – is widely regarded as one of the top leader’s most trusted foreign policy advisers. Bureaucrats across other agencies recognize that the director speaks on behalf of the top leader, thus enabling the director to leverage this influence to overcome fragmentation and ensure compliance among other actors involved in foreign policy. Consequently, top leaders can utilize the structure of the Foreign Affairs Commission to align disparate bureaucratic entities toward a unified diplomatic objective.

According to a retired Chinese diplomat, “comprehensive diplomacy” encompasses several dimensions. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) primarily manages state-to-state relationships with foreign countries. Similar to foreign ministries worldwide, MOFA’s responsibilities include staffing and supporting missions abroad, managing foreign diplomats within China, formulating and implementing foreign policies, and engaging directly in negotiations. 

In addition to these typical diplomatic functions, MOFA also oversees local-level international relationships, such as sister-city partnerships, through its “professional guidance relationship” with local foreign affairs offices. For localities, the main objectives of local diplomacy are to create business opportunities and attract foreign investments. MOFA’s guidance ensures that these local diplomatic activities align with national diplomatic objectives and do not stray from them.

United Front Work

United front work plays a pivotal role in China’s comprehensive diplomacy. The concept of the “united front,” originally formulated by Lenin, was adopted by the CCP during the 1920s as a crucial tool for revolution. Initially, its objective was to forge a broad and inclusive alliance across class divisions to support the nationalist revolution and combat a common adversary. Over time, the concept of the “united front” evolved into a comprehensive strategy aimed at collaborating with, infiltrating, and manipulating other political parties and social forces. This strategy sought to neutralize potential sources of opposition through methods such as co-option and control. 

Xi Jinping famously emphasized the importance of united front work, describing it as the “party’s important weapon to defeat the enemy, govern the state, and rally all Chinese compatriots within China and overseas.” This highlights the central role that united front activities play in achieving the CCP’s objectives both domestically and internationally.

The most critical task of the united front is to uphold Chinese national unity, which extends to regions such as Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, as well as religious leaders within China. However, its implications also extend to foreign affairs. 

The United Front Work Department is tasked with uniting ethnic Chinese communities worldwide to support national unity and the construction of socialism. In practice, its primary targets are overseas Chinese communities and Chinese businesspeople globally. Objectives include promoting Chinese interests overseas, fostering friendships with other countries, and enhancing China’s international influence. 

Moreover, the united front plays a significant role in engaging with important non-state actors. For instance, in India, the United Front Work Department has a special mandate to interact with the Tibetan government in exile and the Dalai Lama. This demonstrates the multifaceted nature of the united front’s activities, encompassing both domestic and international dimensions with the aim of advancing Chinese interests and bolstering national unity.

Party-to-Party Diplomacy

The CCP also has extensive relations with foreign political parties, a practice with a longstanding history dating back to the party’s complex relationship with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) during the revolutionary years. Remarkably, even before the CCP seized national power in 1949 and commenced state-to-state diplomacy, it had amassed significant experience in managing party-to-party relations. 

Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the CCP intensified its party-to-party ties with other socialist parties (though ideological disparities eventually led to the Sino-Soviet split and China’s estrangement from the communist bloc). The CCP utilized party-to-party connections to support leftist revolutionary movements, notably the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Moreover, the CCP forged connections with leftist parties in Western liberal democracies, such as Japan, leveraging these relationships to facilitate unofficial diplomacy and trade before attaining official recognition. This underscores the instrumental role of party-to-party connections in shaping China’s foreign relations and diplomatic strategies across various historical contexts.

After the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping urged the CCP to cultivate “new and healthy” party-to-party relations founded on principles of “independence, equality, respect, and non-interference.” The International Liaison Department assumes a central role in facilitating party-to-party relations between foreign parties and the CCP. Today, the objectives of the CCP’s party-to-party diplomacy are twofold: to facilitate formal state-to-state diplomacy and to enhance the CCP’s political influence overseas. 

Party-to-party diplomacy provides an additional avenue for communication with foreign governments; it can be especially useful in managing relationships with countries that lack formal diplomatic ties with Beijing. The CCP seeks to leverage party connections to maximize its influence on foreign governments and shape policies that are favorably inclined toward China. 

Additionally, the International Liaison Department endeavors to cultivate friendships with emerging political leaders and backbenchers, anticipating that such relationships will prove valuable when these individuals ascend to positions of power in the future. This proactive approach aims to strengthen the CCP’s network of political allies and bolster its long-term influence on the global stage.

Parliamentary Diplomacy

The National People’s Congress (NPC) assumes a central role in China’s parliamentary diplomacy. While the NPC often operates as a “rubber stamp,” it holds the formal authority to approve treaties, declare wars, and appoint ambassadors. At the highest level, the NPC president is responsible for receiving foreign congressional delegations and visiting foreign parliaments. 

The NPC’s Foreign Affairs Committee is tasked with both legislative duties and parliamentary diplomacy. It dispatches staff members to embassies, who are charged with engaging foreign parliamentary members. Their responsibilities include conveying China’s positions to foreign legislators and extending invitations for them to visit China. Through these efforts, the NPC contributes to fostering international dialogue and cooperation at the parliamentary level.

Like other dimensions of Chinese diplomacy, the primary objective of parliamentary diplomacy is to enhance China’s political influence in other countries and advocate for policies favorable to China. Former NPC President Wu Bangguo outlined three goals for China’s parliamentary diplomacy: serving comprehensive diplomacy, promoting economic development, and advancing the NPC’s own work. Essentially, China aims to utilize parliamentary channels to influence foreign lawmakers and create conducive conditions for its interests. 

In the economic realm, the NPC seeks to mitigate trade barriers by engaging with protectionist lawmakers representing anti-trade constituencies. In the political arena, the NPC endeavors to dissuade lawmakers from criticizing China on sensitive issues such as human rights, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong. Additionally, the NPC competes with Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, which is active in parliamentary diplomacy, by advocating for support for Beijing’s One China principle. Furthermore, the NPC identifies and supports promising young parliamentary members, with the hope of leveraging its current backing into future political influence when these individuals ascend to leadership roles. This proactive approach underscores China’s strategy of nurturing long-term relationships and cultivating allies to bolster its influence on the global stage.

Comprehensive Diplomacy’s Final Pieces

In addition to ministries and agencies with overt diplomatic functions, other bureaucracies actively engage with foreign counterparts in various capacities. The Ministry of Defense dispatches military attachés to embassies and collaborates with foreign militaries. It has also established direct hotlines between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and foreign militaries to serve as important conflict management mechanisms. Similarly, the Ministry of State Security (MSS) oversees security diplomacy, which primarily involves cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies. 

Comprehensive diplomacy illustrates China’s aim to maximize interaction with all political actors. For China hawks, this might imply that China seeks to influence and infiltrate at all levels. However, comprehensive diplomacy offers a unique opportunity for the United States to engage with various Chinese political actors across different agencies. Increased engagement will not only help stabilize bilateral relations but also enable American policymakers to discern potential debates among different Chinese bureaucracies, providing an opportunity to exploit internal fragmentation.