China leadership

Vice-premier for foreign affairs will co-ordinate foreign policy

A Politburo member set to be put in charge, making him 'strongman in charge of diplomacy' who can co-ordinate government actions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 4:36am

China's next leaders need to raise the profile of foreign-policy making in the government hierarchy as the country becomes involved in a broader spectrum of international affairs, analysts say.

They say that as more domestic actors become involved in policymaking, the officials in charge of diplomatic affairs lack the seniority needed to co-ordinate them. That has resulted in conflicting perceptions of the handling of external relations.

Observers and insiders expect that after the once-in-a-decade leadership transition at the Communist Party's upcoming national congress, Beijing will put a Politburo member in charge of diplomatic affairs. They say Wang Huning, director of the party's policy research office, is likely be given the task and named a vice-premier.

Just a month ahead of the party congress, the Foreign Ministry announced the establishment of an international economic department to ensure China will be better involved in global co-operation and governance to "safeguard national interests and economic security".

Observers said setting up such a department in the Foreign Ministry, instead of in the Commerce Ministry, indicated that Beijing wanted the nation's diplomats to have a bigger say in the use of economic weapons, including sanctions, and sweeteners to lure more supporters.

With the motto "nothing is trivial when foreign affairs are concerned", China used to place high-ranking officials in charge of diplomacy. Its first foreign minister was premier Zhou Enlai. Many top diplomats afterwards were vice-premiers as China built up ties with countries such as the United States after clashes with former close ally the Soviet Union over ideological differences and border disputes.

But the country's last vice-premier with the role of foreign minister was Qian Qichen, who headed the ministry from 1988 to 1998. He helped China deal with the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The key foreign-policy mastermind in the current administration is State Councillor Dai Bingguo, who outranks Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in the hierarchy but is not as senior as a vice-premier.

"Over the past two decades, China has focused on internal economic growth, and the responsibilities of foreign-affairs officials have become less important," said Gu Su, a philosophy and law professor at Nanjing University.

According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in 2010, most critical foreign-policy decisions are made by the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group, which reportedly includes Dai, Yang, Commerce Minister Chen Deming and Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie. The Communist Party's policy research office and general office are also involved.

But Professor Kerry Brown, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Sydney, said it was hard to see who actually listened to the group's orders.

Under the State Council, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is supposedly the principal actor in the country's diplomacy.

But some other government agencies, such as the Ministry of Commerce, are also involved, especially in handling foreign aid and trade relations.

In addition, state-owned enterprises influence the country's diplomacy, and the military is more eager to raise its voice.

Professor Su Hao of China Foreign Affairs University said changes in the international political landscape made it necessary to adjust the way foreign policy was formulated.

"With the United States pivoting towards Asia, and China's neighbours being increasingly provocative, China really needs to elevate the status of foreign-policy making, enabling better co-ordination with other government agencies," Su said.

Observers said Dai and Yang, the country's top diplomats, had no power to manage other government agencies, particularly the military, because neither was a member of the Politburo. And each of the policy actors had his own agenda, leading to confusion about the way China handled disputes with neighbours.

"There is no strongman in charge of the country's diplomacy, which is unlike the era of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, who could lay down the motto for all officials to follow," said Professor Jin Canrong, an international-affairs specialist at Renmin University.

A report released by the International Crisis Group think tank in April said the lack of co-ordination among different actors in China's diplomatic affairs was evident in Beijing's efforts to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea, with the moderate approach favoured by Beijing hindered by the absence of an overarching policy executed uniformly throughout different levels of government.

Jia Qingguo, a Peking University international affairs professor, said: "Under the existing hierarchy, it is very difficult for these government agencies to achieve better co-ordination."

Elevating the status of foreign-policy making and naming Wang vice-premier in charge of diplomacy would also signal that the leadership wants to change how officials are trained.

Gu said some foreign-affairs officials were trained in a foreign language, but they might not have good understanding of international politics.

"If Wang, who focused his studies on international politics at university, becomes the top diplomat, it means that Beijing wants the nation's diplomats to have professional knowledge about foreign affairs," Gu said. "Such diplomats can be more active and enthusiastic in presenting their views to the top country leaders, instead of just waiting for the decisions from the top."