TSG IntelBrief: China’s Complex Foreign Policy Apparatus Raises Specter of Miscalculations
As of late June 2012, there is a broad perception that, over the last decade, China’s political and economic interests overseas have grown more rapidly than either its foreign policy establishment or its overall bureaucratic structure can effectively manage. Even before this, China watchers around the globe have long noted that Chinese government bureaucracy was heavily “stove-piped,” with officials only sharing information vertically within their own ministry at the expense of much-needed coordination between ministries. This has raised concerns about Beijing’s weak capacity for orchestrating economic, foreign policy, and national security decisions. The consequences of this friction in an increasingly complex foreign policy environment have far-reaching practical implications for both China and the global community.
Weakness of the Principal Player: the Foreign Ministry
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) is perceived to be an especially weak bureaucratic actor with limited powers and poor channels of communication to China’s top leaders. In China, governmental authority and power are linked to a complex system of bureaucratic ranking that identifies the importance of a particular ministry, with higher ranking actors only issuing binding orders to lower ranking ones.
Surprisingly, China’s Foreign Ministry has a relatively low rank within the central government, serving as one of many ministries under the State Council. By comparison, the principal military authority in China, the Central Military Commission, has a rank equivalent with that of the State Council (and well above the Foreign Ministry). The upshot is that the Foreign Ministry has no clear institutional means to influence military or national security policy. China’s most senior diplomat is not even Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, but rather State Councillor Dai Bingguo, who oversees the Foreign Ministry on the State Council and, practically speaking, is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s counterpart.
The effect of the Foreign Ministry’s lower rank is reflected down throughout the authority of the working levels of the entire ministry. In addition, China’s central government ministries, including MOFA, are only of equal rank with provincial governments, such as Sichuan and Guangdong Provinces. This means that MOFA cannot technically compel a provincial government to enforce a foreign policy imperative; instead, it must appeal up the chain-of-command to a higher-ranked entity to do this.
The difficulties posed by China’s ranking system compound another problem common to many governments, including the United States: the challenge of overlapping bureaucratic jurisdiction and competition. As one of many ministries under the State Council, China’s Foreign Ministry is but an equal actor with a host of other government ministries competing for jurisdiction over major policy questions. And these other ministries have portfolios that often crowd into the Foreign Ministry’s policy arena.
Sovereign disputes in the South China Sea present a prime example of overlapping jurisdiction and bureaucratic competition. Since disputes in the South China Sea involve other foreign governments, the Foreign Ministry is one of the ministries with limited jurisdiction in such disputes, with responsibilities that include drafting policies for delineating land and maritime borders. But the People’s Liberation Army, which outranks the Foreign Ministry, clearly has the crucial enforcement piece of South China Sea jurisdiction, supported by other civilian actors such as the People’s Armed Police Maritime Border Defense and the maritime militia forces. Economic development strategies in the South China Sea are coordinated and implemented by the National Development and Reform Commission, perhaps the most powerful ministry-level agency in China, with responsibility for China’s business, commerce, and energy investment policies.
Other civilian ministries under the State Council with jurisdictions that compete with MOFA’s in the South China Sea include: the Ministries of Science and Technology; Land and Resources; Environmental Protection; Transport; Agriculture; Education; Industry and Information Technology; and Public Security. The Chinese system has no overarching coordinating body serving the role that the National Security Council plays in the United States to mediate and coordinate such instances of overlapping jurisdiction. Instead, MOFA has to compete for budget resources, power, and attention from higher-level bodies along with each other ministry claiming jurisdiction.
State-owned-enterprises (SOEs) represent another, quasi-governmental group of MOFA’s competitors. China’s overseas investments have exploded in the last decade, largely through the expansion of SOE activities. Many of these giant companies have extensive holdings in other countries, ranging from Africa to Latin America to Europe to the United States. The heads of key SOEs, the so-called “”national champions,”” have vice-ministerial rank, and the foreign investment activities of these companies are regulated not by MOFA, but by the ministries with jurisdictions over the SOE’s pertinent economic activity, such as Agriculture, Railways, or Transportation. The National Development and Reform Commission also has extensive responsibility for SOE activity overseas. Although the international investments of SOEs certainly have foreign policy implications, it is not certain how or even if SOEs coordinate their activities with MOFA.
Although MOFA has responsibility for administering foreign policy decisions, often the research and recommendations that generate those policy decisions are being crafted not by MOFA, but by an expanding group of policy think-tanks. While some are associated with MOFA, there are also think tanks funded and run by other government ministries, the military, Party entities such as the Central Party School, and universities. These groups spend their days conducting policy research, writing papers, and providing policy recommendations that are often being read at the highest levels of the Party and government, where policy framework is set. Thus, although MOFA executes policy decisions, those policies are likely to have been written by analysts associated with other institutions.
The clearest implication of the weakness in Chinese foreign policy coordination is the real possibility of creating misunderstandings on the global stage. Poor communication and coordination, for instance, were key factors in the confusion surrounding the PLA’s anti-satellite (ASAT) test in January 2007, which kept the United States in the dark about the details until nearly two weeks after the event when Beijing officially confirmed the test. A similar misunderstanding, also in 2007, surrounded China’s sudden refusal to allow the USS Kitty Hawk to make a planned Thanksgiving port visit to Hong Kong, a decision that appeared to mystify the Foreign Ministry.
There are more subtle implications of these weaknesses in China’s foreign policy process. Beijing’s inability to be more forthcoming in a crisis may be more a function of its internal bureaucratic communication problems than sinister intent. It would thus be prudent for foreign governments to re-think how they approach Beijing’s foreign policymaking apparatus, perhaps expanding the number of contact points to include a host of collateral foreign policy actors that have influence — directly or indirectly — over the process.
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