November 29th, 2012
09:28 AM ET

Foreign policy will stay on China’s backburner

By Linda Jakobson, Special to CNN

Linda Jakobson is East Asia Program Director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. The views expressed are her own.

A Chinese colleague remarked to me some years ago that he felt sorry for Yang Jiechi because, during state visits, China’s foreign minister is relegated to fifth or sixth in the hierarchy. In other countries, in contrast, the foreign minister is typically seen as the second or third most important person in a delegation, following the head of state and possibly the finance minister. In China, though, rank is determined according to one’s position in the Communist Party of China (CPC). All of the Politburo’s 28 members outrank Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi – he is merely one of 205 Central Committee members.

Governments around the world have looked to China in hope that it would take a more active role in managing or resolving a host of global problems. Yet for China’s top leaders, foreign policy still does not look destined to become a key issue.

To help understand how (un)important foreign policy is to the CPC, it’s worth looking at Party rank of the person in charge of it. No one on the all-powerful, new seven-person Politburo Standing Committee has the foreign policy portfolio. Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, among his many responsibilities, is the ultimate decision-maker on foreign and security policy. Besides Xi, two other Standing Committee members – China's next Premier Li Keqiang, and Wang Qishan, who since 2009 has headed the Chinese delegation during the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue – have considerable experience in dealing with foreign leaders. But neither of them has been given specific responsibility for the foreign policy portfolio.

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Before the 18th Party Congress there was speculation that for the first time in ten years, the person in charge of running day-to-day foreign policy would be a Politburo member. This would have been a clear indication that the Communist Party leadership had decided to elevate foreign policy. The rumor seemed to be confirmed when Wang Huning, a former professor of international relations, was chosen as a Politburo member. Indeed, some still believe that Wang will be given responsibility for foreign affairs.

But last week, mixed signals emerged from conversations I had with Chinese colleagues in Beijing about the possible appointment of Wang as overseer of education. As a result, China will yet again continue to muddle through with a foreign policy manager who lacks real authority within the Party hierarchy. The latest word in Beijing is that Yang Jiechi will take over from Dai Bingguo as the state counselor in charge of foreign affairs, a position more senior than foreign affairs minister. Yang is known for his low-key personality, and some regard him as someone unlikely to take the initiative. As one Chinese colleague commented: “Yang will continue to execute directions from those senior to him.”

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So, if Yang becomes the top manager of foreign policy, who will become foreign minister? Zhang Zhijun, currently a vice minister, looks to be favorite. However, he has two strong competitors: Wang Yi and Wang Guangya. Wang Yi, 59, is executive vice minister in charge of Asian affairs, has served as ambassador to Japan and has experience in cross-Strait relations. Wang Guangya, 62, has been a vice minister, an ambassador to the United Nations, and is presently in charge of Hong Kong affairs.

However, as with the Party leadership, the process by which government positions are decided is shrouded in secrecy. Since the announcement of the new Communist Party hierarchy on November 15, there has been intense jockeying for dozens of government positions in Beijing. This will no doubt continue until the National People’s Congress in March, when the make-up of the new government will finally be announced.

But no matter who takes over as state counselor and foreign minister, there appears to be a consensus among Chinese political analysts that substantial changes in China's foreign policy should not be expected. Indeed, most observers do not even expect a major foreign policy speech by Xi outlining China's foreign policy outlook and priorities for another two years. Xi will hunker down and concentrate on domestic issues.

The world and its problems can wait.

Jakobson is the author (with Dean Knox) of New Foreign Policy Actors in China, a policy paper published in 2010 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

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Topics: China

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. USN Ret.

    Why should the leadership do anything? When you can tell a billions people to hop on one leg they do and you enjoy telling them to do so why change.

    November 29, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  2. j. von hettlingen

    True, Linda, "the world and its problems can wait". China doesn't feel obliged to tell the international community what domestic or foreign policies it conducts. Beijing sees them as internal affairs. It sticks to its traditional mindset – to stay at home and mind one's business. Chinese have always believed their country, the Middle Kingdom, the old name for China, as centre of the world, with the highest form of civilisation. So why step outside?

    December 1, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  3. Vic

    China get enough problem of its own than to worry about others? It's like a layman telling a priest that he got enough problems in this world than to worry about the hereafter. That is okay, as God is supposed to be benevolent. However, China needs to worry about the outside as the outside world might impinge on China detrimentally.

    December 3, 2012 at 3:28 am |
  4. aDifferentView

    "The foreign minister is typically seen as the second or third most important person in a delegation" in the western countries is a carryover of their colonialism (from the past). It was very important to be prosperous by slaving other countries with the gunship diplomacy. It is still true to some degree in a different format. See which countries now operate and some continue building aircraft carrier(s): the US, Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Russia, India, ..

    December 10, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
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