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Harmony or discord? Foreign policy implications of China's upcoming Party Congress

Hu’s mixed legacy

When Hu Jintao was appointed Party General Secretary at the 16th Party Congress in 2002, China had successfully reassured its neighbours in the 1990s and the early 2000s that it would exercise self-restraint over its territorial conflicts in the East and South China seas. A decade later, there has been little progress in cooperative security mechanisms. Instead, against a backdrop of heightened strategic rivalry between China and the USA in East Asia, Japan, the Philippines and Viet Nam are edging towards balancing strategies.


One of the factors behind this has been the fragmentation of China’s foreign and security policy sphere. The rise of a diversity of new foreign policy actors, highlighted by Linda Jakobson and Dean Knox in 2010, is a logical consequence of the globalization of Chinese economic and security interests. They include major Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that have become key players in promoting and defending Chinese economic interests, as well as agents of political influence worldwide. The Ministry of Public Security now conducts its own security diplomacy to protect Chinese overseas workers and weaken the Tibetan and Uyghur pro-independence movements. The Party’s International Liaison Department has taken on foreign policy activities far beyond its traditional role as a party-to-party platform to promote international socialism. Several other government agencies and the PLA can also exert important influence on foreign policy outcomes in their areas of competence.


Alongside this, there has been an increasing polarization of views about how a rising China should behave on the international stage, with some advocating cooperative approaches to security issues while others want to see China being more assertive in dealing with its neighbours and the USA. 


Hu has generally been able to keep the pro-assertiveness voices in check, but he has also clearly had to accommodate them. During the past two years, liberal internationalist voices have gradually disappeared from the public sphere. Territorial disputes over islands in the East and the South China seas constantly make the headlines, and bellicose attitudes appear even in usually more cautious state media outlets. Hu’s ‘harmonious world’ and ‘peaceful development’ foreign policy slogans have almost disappeared from the Chinese domestic debate. Nevertheless, China’s foreign policy has remained more moderate than the public discourse would suggest.


Is a revamp of the the foreign policy apparatus off the table?

There has been a lot of debate in recent years about how to improve coordination between China’s various foreign policy actors and so increase the efficiency of both the elaboration and the implementation of foreign policy decisions. A number of options have been put forward. Three of the proposed fixes—establishing a US-style national security council, coordinating foreign policy through the Party Secretariat, creating a new committee to oversee decision making in the maritime security sphere—are no longer mentioned. It is also highly unlikely that the Congress will adopt the mooted idea of creating a position within the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the Party’s top leadership body, to replace State Councillor Dai Bingguo - a member of the Central Committee who is currently in charge of coordinating China’s foreign policy. Meanwhile, the Party’s Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group, the ad hoc entity supposedly in charge of coordination, has reportedly not convened for more than a year. 


The fact that the remodelling of China’s foreign policy apparatus has effectively disappeared from public debate may be a sign that it will not be addressed in November. The Party General Secretary will continue to divide his time between domestic politics and international relations, while the Premier, another PSC member, will handle part of China’s economic diplomacy-including, importantly, relations with the European Union. 


Some have advocated giving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the job of coordinating foreign policy, but to exert authority over the public security apparatus, state-owned enterprises and other government agencies that have become more active in the foreign policy sphere, the next foreign minister would have to be a member of the Politburo, not just of the Central Committee as has been the case in the past. Even in this did happen, there would be a question of how labour (and authority) would then be divided between the foreign minister and Dai Bingguo’s successor.


The dangers of a divided leadership 

A major concern is the potential for divisions at the top of the Party regarding foreign policy questions. It already seems that domestic problems and internal jostling for positions in the new leadership line-up are largely responsible for pushing foreign policy reform far down the agenda. If internal rivalries and divisions persist in the new collective leadership, it could have serious repercussions for China’s foreign relations.


Despite the fragmentation in foreign policy, the current PSC has been able to reassert central control over foreign policy decision making in the most sensitive areas of China’s external relations, especially when international tensions get high. However, if the new leaders are unable to keep control over foreign policy and harmonize thinking on how China should engage with the rest of the world, or if decision making is paralyzed by political rivalries at the top of the Party, the PSC’s ability to step in with pragmatic, conflict-avoidance policies will be compromised.


Prospects for international security

A more assertive, nationalistic slant in China’s foreign policy could exacerbate the current security turbulence in East Asia, with the risk of military conflict increasing. Further disarray and accommodation of pro-assertiveness voices in the foreign policy sphere could also hamper the efforts of those in the Chinese leadership who push for cooperative approaches to resolve international tensions.

More broadly, there is a danger that the growing tendency for Chinese foreign policy decision makers to see China’s international relations in terms of the strategic competition with the USA will further influence their thinking. Japan’s recent move to nationalize the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is mostly perceived in China as a direct result of the USA’s recent ‘pivot to Asia’. Similarly, relations between China and Europe are often viewed as merely an extension of the China-USA relationship, with the Americans pulling the strings. For example, the mainstream view among Chinese experts and officials is that US pressure is entirely responsible for the failure to lift the European Union (EU) arms embargo on China, dismissing domestic European concerns over China’s human rights record.


This narrow approach risks ignoring the legitimate interests and views of other global players and severely limits China’s potential to be a constructive force for global and regional security. One major challenge for the next generation of Chinese leaders will therefore be to move beyond this narrow US focus and to recalibrate Chinese foreign policy towards a truly multipolar approach to international security issues. 


It may be that the current ascendance of pro-assertiveness voices in Chinese public discourse is a Party propaganda ruse to divert attention from domestic problems for the sake of stability; the apparently declining influence of the liberal internationalists may only be the result of pre-Congress politics. Nevertheless, domestic factors will largely determine how far, under the new Central Committee, the PSC can limit the influence of pro-assertiveness voices and keep China on a track of conflict avoidance and international cooperation. External actors, such as the EU, can have little influence over these developments, but they should keep encouraging China’s emergence as a cooperative and constructive partner in international security.