China’s New Foreign Policy Team

The first annual session of the 12th National People’s Congress (NPC) in China has just ended with the ‘election’ of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang as President and Premier respectively and approval of a new cabinet of ministers. Despite the NPC’s largely rubber-stamp role – candidates approved by Congress were pre-selected by the Chinese Communist Party – the first sitting of the NPC was important because among other things, it also announced the line-up of China’s new foreign policy team.

It is important to note that major foreign and security policy initiatives are the preserve not of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) as part of the Chinese government but of the Communist Party. As General Secretary, Xi Jinping directs foreign policy through a body which comprises representatives not only from the MFA but also from the military and the departments and ministries handling national security and foreign trade.

What then are foreign policy implications of this leadership transition in China?

First of all, Xi might wield considerably more influence in foreign and security policies than Hu Jintao. For one, as the scion of a prominent Communist Party family, he has long-standing personal links with many of China’s present crop of leaders – both civilian and military – who are similarly the children of former senior Party officials. These bonds, particularly in the PLA, have ensured that Xi has the strong backing of the armed forces, considerably strengthening his foreign policy hand.

For another, by securing the appointment of a Vice-President, Li Yuanchao, who is not a member of the Party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee – in effect, the collective of seven people that rules China – the Presidency again has relatively more influence in foreign policy than was the case in the Hu Jintao regime.

Premier Li Keqiang will have an important role to play in China’s foreign policy as befits his position but his main focus will be on the domestic economy and he will be assisted in foreign affairs by a State Councilor and a Foreign Minister below him.

And this is where some important implications for India become more evident.

The new State Councilor is Yang Jiechi promoted from his position as Foreign Minister to succeed the veteran Dai Bingguo. This suggests that he will also succeed to Dai’s role as Special Representative on the Sino-Indian boundary dispute – the first change in this position on the Chinese side, since the Special Representatives dialogue began in 2003. India, by contrast, has had four Special Representatives. Dai’s exit therefore represents a huge shift in terms of the experience that he brought to the table over the several years of dealing with India.

Unlike Dai who was an expert on Russian and East European affairs, the British-educated Yang is seen as a specialist on the United States and has served multiple terms at the Chinese embassy in Washington, including, finally, as ambassador. He will thus likely bring a change of style and focus – a focus that will most likely remain on the United States and the Asia-Pacific theatre, where China will seek to better understand and more forcefully undercut the so-called American pivot to Asia.

Yang Jiechi’s successor as Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, is a former ambassador to Japan and has been promoted from his position as head of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council that conducts mainland China’s policy towards the island. Wang inherited particularly troubled bilateral relationships each time and was successful in both reducing political tensions and boosting economic ties. Whether this bodes well for the resolution of China’s current tensions with its East and Southeast Asian neighbours over disputed maritime territories, and perhaps even for the boundary dispute with India remains to be seen.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Beijing
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beijing

However, Xi appears to have done little since he took over as General Secretary last year, to lower the temperature on China’s maritime disputes. In fact, even as the 12th NPC was on, China announced that it would send a survey team to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in dispute with Japan. While, the Chinese spokesperson was vague about when this would happen, it was by far the clearest indication yet that China intended to land on Japanese-controlled territory – surely a trigger for conflict.

Meanwhile, China’s official defence budget continues its double digit growth and its top maritime administration agency has been restructured to improve coordination and law enforcement at sea, no doubt with an eye on maintaining access to the disputed territories.

While all of this might be construed as assertive Chinese behaviour, Xi has to cater also to a domestic audience that still feels strongly about the humiliations that China suffered under both Western and Japanese imperialism. That said, China’s new leader could also be using nationalism and declarations of support for a strong Chinese military to strengthen his political position during the current leadership transition. Having established his nationalist credentials, Xi would then conceivably be in a position to offer negotiations on disputes, including concessions if required, without fear of a domestic backlash.

Specifically on India, Xi has repeated his predecessor’s ‘five-point proposal’ to improve ties: maintaining high-level communications, utilizing economic complementarities, strengthening people-to-people exchanges, enhancing multilateral cooperation and being sensitive to each other’s core concerns and handling problems and differences ‘properly’.

However, continuity by itself has little meaning if recent experiences are anything to go by. Economic complementarity has meant a rising Indian trade deficit while Indian enterprises remain locked out of the Chinese market by multiple non-tariff barriers. Multilateral cooperation is really just photo-op summitry and neither side believes that the other is quite sensitive enough to its core concerns. Thus, bilateral ties will continue to be complicated by boundary dispute and if political instability in Tibet continues, Beijing will have little leeway to be flexible on the boundary dispute.

Meanwhile, the impending American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Beijing’s appointment of a special representative for Myanmar, India’s increasing economic and political interests in East Asia and the US pivot to Asia marked by the re-designation of the strategic space connecting India and China as the Indo-Pacific, offer both opportunities for cooperation as well as challenges for the bilateral relationship. Whether it will be the opportunities that trump the challenges will depend on the sagacity and statesmanship of leaders on both sides.
Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, “Focus of China’s foreign policy,” New Indian Express, 25 March 2013.

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