Who Makes China’s Foreign Policy?

As China’s leadership transition is nearing completion, the Foreign Ministry is also undergoing a leadership change. China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, now holds the top foreign policy position. Wang Yi, previously an ambassador to Japan and the United States, has been named Yang’s successor. From the BBC:

Those outside China will look to Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi to understand China’s stance on a host of international issues. However, they might not receive clear answers.

“Chinese foreign policy has been criticised domestically because it looks like China has been very weak in dealing with hot issues,” explains Su Hao, professor of foreign affairs studies at the China University of Foreign Affairs.

“But internationally, China has been accused of being arrogant. Terms like ‘assertive’ and ‘aggressive’ are used to describe China’s foreign policy.”

Perhaps that is the toughest task faced by Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi: they must present China’s foreign policy on the international stage, even if, at times, they played a limited role in making those decisions.

Zheng Wang, an associate professor at Seton Hall University and a public policy scholar, says the position that foreign policy occupies in the Chinese government is still very low. From The New York Times:

However, neither Mr. Yang, who will continue to oversee foreign relations, nor Mr. Wang, the new foreign minister, is among the 25 members of the Politburo — the power center of Chinese politics.

None of the seven members of the even more powerful Politburo Standing Committee — which includes Mr. Xi and the new prime minister, Li Keqiang — is a foreign policy expert, though one of them, Wang Qishan, has worked closely with the last two Treasury secretaries of the United States, Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Timothy F. Geithner, in coordinating the response to the global economic crisis of 2007-8.

China watchers have a tendency to overstate the sophistication of Beijing’s foreign policy and ambitions, but the truth is that China’s foreign policy is highly deficient. While the outsiders often see China as a rising giant and a threat, Chinese leaders are in fact largely nervous and insecure, uncertain of how to manage, both at home and abroad, the inevitable tensions that arise from their nation’s rapid ascent on the world stage. For the newly “elected” leaders, their first challenge would be how to fill the foreign policy vacuum and how to solve the country’s choice between nationalism and globalism.

The new Chinese leadership will be tempted to please its domestic base by adopting more nationalistic foreign policies. China has many domestic troubles, from corruption to a slowing economy. However, the new leaders have to make sure that they fully understand the consequences of China’s heading down a path of nationalism.

Another article from The New York Times provides more details on China’s new foreign policy team. The officials’ records seem to suggest that China wants to secure its position in Asia:

As foreign minister, Mr. Yang often pushed a hard line on policy toward the United States. And on the eve of his new appointment, he suggested that Washington should play a lesser role in discussions among nations in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Asia-Pacific issues should be discussed and dealt with by the countries of the region themselves,” he said at a news conference on March 9, a reference that was interpreted by Asian diplomats as meaning that the United States should stay out.

The new foreign minister is Wang Yi, a diplomat experienced in Asian affairs who was China’s ambassador to Japan from 2004 to 2007. Mr. Wang, until recently in charge of the Taiwan portfolio, does not have much experience with the United States, but American officials know him from his role in leading six-party talks on North Korea during the administration of President George W. Bush.

“Wang Yi is of the school that does not see China’s future on the Korean Peninsula yoked to North Korea,” said Victor D. Cha, a former director of Asian affairs for the National Security Council in the Bush administration, who participated in the talks.


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