Too many cooks spoil foreign-policy stew

2011-01-07Asia Times

BEIJING - In just a few days, the presidents of the United States and China, Barack Obama and Hu Jintao, will meet in Washington for a summit that's bound to be labeled "historic", as the two will try to mend fences after a year of stormy relations. They are the final decision-makers, the ones who call the shots over their countries' foreign policies.

Still, in authoritarian China, despite all the clout Hu might have, foreign policy - unlike finance, industry, coal mining, etc - is not a brief with clear-cut responsibilities and decisions do not depend on the ultimate nod of one man.

The Foreign Ministry is involved in decisions on foreign policy, but everybody knows that the military's perspective counts for more. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) is not just a ministry; it is a state within the state with sprawling interests at home and abroad.

Furthermore, there is the intelligence apparatus, the fearsome Ministry of State Security (Anquan Bu), whose brand-new offices symbolically tower over the east side of Tiananmen Square, China's political heart. Moreover, there is the Party Foreign Department (Zhonglian Bu), once an institution bigger than the Foreign Ministry that was dedicated to relations with other communist parties, and now surviving with confused and confusing assignments - yet it can't be ignored. Nor can the United Front be ignored: with responsibilities related to ethnic Chinese abroad and religions, issues like ties with the Holy See and Taiwan fall into its lap.

There was once an easy, traditional and institutional non-division of labor regarding foreign policy, but then globalization brought up the interests of other formerly inward-looking ministries. There is the Ministry of Commerce, presiding over the huge interest group of surplus traders, whose gigantic earnings gain them huge clout in domestic decision-making. There is also the Central Bank, whose effort to fight off revaluation and to sterilize trillions of dollars make it a big player in policy decisions. The Ministry of Finance, tied with the two previous ministries, can't be ignored, and the Ministry of Environment has gained global attention as China exports pollution as well as goods.

Following these institutional interests, there is concern from dozens of large and small companies with investments abroad. State oil companies, presided over by deputy ministers and pumping in billions of yuan in profits for themselves and for China, can't be ignored as they represent a crucial hub of energy security for the country. Neither can all other companies, trying to find a place in the world, be neglected.

Last but not least, information and propaganda is also an integral part of foreign policy, and the crucial Publicity Department projects China's image abroad. Under this, more or less loosely, fall the increasingly divergent voices of Chinese intellectuals, some hawks and some doves, who also push the Chinese boat in one direction or another.

In sum, among the nine members of the politburo standing committee, all nine have a voice and a particular stake in foreign policy. Zhou Yongkang, in charge of security, is fundamental in it. Li Changchun is in charge of propaganda, so has a say in China's foreign policy. Li Keqiang, sitting over finance and industry, can't ignore foreign affairs. Xi Jinping, vice chairman of the PLA commission, has a hand in it, too, as does Jia Qinglin, ultimately responsible for religion and Taiwan. Wen Jiabao, presiding over the whole economy, is also an important part of the game. When everybody else is involved how can He Guoqiang, chief of party discipline, and Wu Bangguo, head of the parliament, not utter their opinions?

In fact, China's economic size, population and speed of change are such that all its domestic decisions have global relevance. Everything domestic is by itself important to the rest of the world, and it will be even more so as its economic and political size grows in the future. China can no longer think of its domestic issues as only its own concern.

When last year in Mexico Vice President Xi Jinping said that China's great contribution to the world was to take care of over one-fifth of the world's population without allowing its problems to spill abroad, in fact he was revealing another side, too: anything decided by this population - more or less houses, more or less cars, more or less meat or grain for food - has a global impact that the world can't ignore.

So, as with domestic policies, Hu is the coordinator and the most important man in the field, but in the Chinese style of division of powers and responsibilities, he is not the only decision-maker. Most likely, he has to negotiate every decision with all the other major players.

These broad responsibilities in foreign policy are not something new to China after the demise of paramount leaders like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The scattered accountability worked well when China was out of the limelight of global foreign politics. Every sector looked after its own interests with some kind of loose coordination and then reacted to inputs.

Long-term policies were decided and carried out by the president but were not subject to constant pressure and daily challenges with different, diverging requests from all over the world. Loosely reacting to daily disputes and holding the long-term helm steady was enough. And it was enough to concentrate and react once in a while to sudden shocks, like the 2001 landing of the US surveillance plane EP3 on Hainan Island.

All of this changed when China became the number-two global economy, and foreigners and Chinese alike braved the idea of a Group of 2 with America. Then everything in China came under greater scrutiny, and the country gained special weight in the world.

China had sentenced dissidents in the past - not just Liu Xiaobo, who was later awarded a Nobel Peace Prize; it had had many controversies about the Internet - not only with Google. It dragged its feet on the environment earlier, and it shielded North Korea before without being singled out and burned at the stake for it.

But China's new size and status, coupled with the drop in global attention to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, made some Chinese behavior, which in the past was almost ordinary, now much less acceptable. China in the future can no longer behave like some second-rate country, just as when a big, grown-up man yells it is scary and objectively dangerous, while a kid screaming can be just a nuisance.

However, there are many difficulties given China's present situation.

In big countries like America, official decisions and public opinion are separated. Official decisions are very cautious and public voices can be loud and strident. In the Chinese "comprehensive" system, conversely, there is little difference between the official central government opinion and voices uttered by government-controlled newspapers.

This is a further complication of foreign affairs in the Chinese system: there are too many opinions and too many people involved in the foreign affairs decision-making process and far too many constituencies to be considered, while on the outside there is only one voice. This voice then is bound to be the least controversial, the most traditional, and the least innovative for the domestic constituency - the most conservative available.

Yet, China can no longer simply react to foreign actions and pushes. It has to be proactive. Because of its new global role and position, it is required to have new high profile with positive, imaginative, and nimble initiatives, but its system can't cope with it.

Nobody can make sudden decisions and move fast on challenges coming from all over the world. Some things can wait but some need immediate responses, and looming challenges should be met before they have time to gain momentum and become too big to be dealt with. The cumbersome Chinese unaccountability system makes it impossible to have a proactive decision-making process.

Then, the question is, how much leeway will Hu have in talks with Obama? How free will Hu be in talks with his American colleague to impress or be impressed?

Here there are two separate issues: one is the general reform of the decision-making process in China's foreign affairs to make it more efficient, and the other is the leeway the Chinese president has or should have in China.

The short-term solution for the present quandary with the Obama summit, is great preparation. Beijing will possibly try to prepare very well and very comprehensively to make sure the meeting will be a success. The structural changes of Chinese policy will have to wait, as they might be part of some of the urgent broader political reforms China is awaiting in the next few years.  (2011-01-07 Asia Times)


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