A garbled foreign policy does China no good

Frank Ching says China's haphazard conduct of its foreign policy doesn't befit a major nation, and decisions must come from the top

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 February, 2013, 3:36am

In mid-November, after being anointed as leader of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping met members of the international media and impressed them with his self-confidence and sense of humour. Throughout his address, he said not a word about foreign policy.

His focus on domestic issues is understandable. China's biggest problems are domestic ones. Its budget for ensuring domestic stability exceeds its defence budget, reflecting the government's priorities. From the party's standpoint, the main threat is internal, not external.

While this may be true, it is dangerous not to have someone at the top guide the nation's foreign policy. China has argued that its recent diplomatic problems were initiated by its neighbours, such as Japan and the Philippines. All Beijing did, officials said, was to react. But this is not what a great country should do.

By not focusing on foreign affairs, the central authorities are allowing lower-level officials to direct foreign policy, possibly with disastrous results.

The issuing of new passports last year, imprinted with maps showing areas disputed with other countries as Chinese soil, was a case in point. That decision was made by the police, whose duties include issuing passports. The result was that neighbouring countries were up in arms.

Ironically, China used to consider foreign policy of the highest importance. Premier Zhou Enlai was at the same time the foreign minister. Even in the late 1990s, the foreign minister, Qian Qichen , was a member of the Politburo.

Today, however, the foreign minister is only a member of the Central Committee, which has more than 200 members.

The foreign minister has no control over the security apparatus, or state-owned companies whose investment decisions trigger suspicion, or of provincial governments, such as that of Hainan , which announced last year a policy of stopping and searching foreign ships in the South China Sea.

Recently, Tokyo accused a Chinese ship of having locked its weapons-control radar onto a Japanese destroyer. The Chinese government denied that the incident ever occurred.

This is not the first such incident. According to Japan, a similar thing happened to one of its helicopters. And the US has made it known that China has employed ground-based lasers to "paint" American satellites, before China destroyed one of its own satellites in a weapons test in outer space.

Currently, the Foreign Ministry has to carry the can and parry questions about actions taken by other agencies, often with the ministry having no knowledge of these actions.

This is not a satisfactory state of affairs. There are far too many actors, each with its own agenda. It is in China's interest to see to it that actions with foreign policy implications must be carried out only with the approval of people at the highest level.

We live in a complicated world. China cannot afford to allow itself to be a captive of decisions made in foreign capitals and by its own, lower-level officials.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. frank.ching@scmp.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1