China to restructure foreign affairs team in push for greater role on world stage, source says

Top diplomat and Politburo member Yang Jiechi expected to head up new consolidated department for overseas relations

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 March, 2018, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 March, 2018, 11:30pm

China is set to introduce significant changes to its foreign affairs structure with the merger of two ministerial-level organisations under its top diplomat, as it continues to push for greater recognition as a global leader, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

Under the plan, the Communist Party department responsible for relations with overseas political parties would be consolidated with the party’s foreign policy coordination office, the source told the South China Morning Post.

“The purpose of the reorganisation is to streamline the structure of the agencies and reduce overlaps,” the person said.

China is keen to raise its profile on the world stage, but doing so requires an overhaul of its bureaucratic and uncoordinated foreign policy decision-making function. As a result, the reshaping of two party agencies is one of the key agenda items at the ongoing National People’s Congress in Beijing.

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The change would see the Communist Party’s International Liaison Department – which handles relations with political parties from other countries – merge with the Office of the Central Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, the source said.

While the precise details of the plan are a closely guarded secret, the new body is expected to be headed by State Councillor Yang Jiechi, who already has responsibility for the leading group office and was promoted to the Communist Party’s powerful Politburo in October.

The proposals were expected to be confirmed next week, the source said.

In his new role, Yang will report to Wang Qishan, who is set to be named as China’s vice-president with overall responsibility for foreign affairs at the end of the NPC session.

One of the main functions of the International Liaison Department is managing China’s relations with North Korea. In November, its present chief, Song Tao, visited the Pyongyang for talks with officials.

Meanwhile, Yang’s office – in its existing form – serves as the secretariat of the Central Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, which is headed by President Xi Jinping.

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The two bodies – the International Liaison Department and Yang’s office – had several overlapping functions, such as studying major international issues and advising the party’s Central Committee, and it was these that the restructuring was meant to consolidate, the source said.

In another move designed to raise the profile of diplomats within the party's decision-making structure, Foreign Minister Wang Yi would be promoted to State Councillor, the person said, adding that he would report to Yang, whose status as a Politburo member gives him seniority.

Since Xi came to power, China has sought to position itself as an advocate for globalisation and has invested heavily in foreign infrastructure projects through its “Belt and Road Initiative”, which to date has had dealings with 68 countries.

The country also wants to have a bigger say in the way international institutions are run, which Xi sees as essential to extending the country’s global reach. This, in part, has led to clashes with the United States and other countries on various issues, most notably trade, territorial rights and the deployment of Chinese forces overseas.

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The problem for Beijing is that the existing structure of its foreign affairs agencies is not suitable for the role it wants to play.

The foreign ministry, for instance, despite being an executive branch of the government, does not have any real authority to make decisions, as several other bodies, including the International Liaison Department and the Ministry of Commerce, also have a stake in determining China’s diplomatic direction.

Also, the decision-making process is overseen by the Central Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, which has a broad portfolio and a diverse membership of minister-level officials and above, including the foreign minister, the director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, and senior representatives of the propaganda department and military.

While the office of the central leading group was supposed to coordinate these disparate executive agencies, in reality it lacked the status to perform the role effectively, Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said.

“Some executive agencies simply bypass the office and go straight to the top leadership,” he said. “There is a lack of an effective and authoritative coordination mechanism between the senior party leadership and the executive agencies.”

The proposed restructuring had been needed for a long time, Li said, adding that the promotion of Yang to the Politburo and the appointment of Wang Qishan as vice-president would help to ensure that the country’s diplomats had real authority in the foreign policy decision-making process.

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said the present structure for foreign policymaking was “problematic in many ways”.

“Historically, the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] departments involved in foreign policy have had different roles to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” he said.

“But there is a case to be made to consolidate all foreign affairs under a single ‘supremo’.”