China’s Foreign Policy And Security Decision System: Shaping Assertive Sovereignty and Regional Behavior


2014-09-02 by Harald Malmgren

Xi Jinping has already successfully reconfigured China’s Politburo and its Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). He has also set in motion a massive corruption purge of the Chinese domestic state security apparatus, starting with its head, Zhou Yongkang, and including several hundred other national and local officials.

This corruption purge also extends to an unknown, growing number of personnel of China National Petroleum Corporation, where Zhou had previously been CEO while amassing great wealth and a vast personal power structure.

It is widely believed that Zhou had tried to use his seemingly limitless knowledge of weaknesses and corruption of much of the entire Chinese leadership to place his own choices in positions of power throughout the Chinese government during the transition of leadership to Xi.

Thus, Xi’s crackdown on Zhou is seen as an unexpectedly bold consolidation of Xi’s new power structure.

It also demonstrates Xi’s zero tolerance for independent personality power networks.Corruption most likely reaches every nook and cranny in China’s elaborate, overly centralized public-private economic structure. Xi will have to draw some boundaries for how far he wants to reach, balancing the purge of some while permitting fear of purge to limit non-compliant behavior of others.

At the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, Xi not only took over Communist Party control but also appointed Wang Qishan, known as Xi’s “fix it” man, to the PSC. Wang was appointed head of the PSC watchdog committee, with increased numbers of investigators and a public warning that no corrupt official was safe.

Although world news and media consider Premier Li Keqiang the second in command of China, after Xi, insiders consider Wang to be the second most powerful official in China today. No doubt his power to purge motivates many officials when asked to do something.

After the 18th Party Congress, questions remained about what changes Xi would execute in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The role of the PLA in Chinese national decision-making is somewhat murky in Western press and media reports on events in China, and in the PLA’s interactions with the militaries of other nations, notably with the US.

Under previous Chinese leaders, the PLA operated through the Central Military Commission (CMC) reporting directly to the party chairman, without formal communication with the PSC and with minimal bureaucratic interaction with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other agencies involved with China’s relations with the rest of the world.

The CMC had its own autonomous authority, with its own foreign policy apparatus of committees and think tanks. Generals in its membership had much liberty to express harsh, aggressive remarks about the policies or military actions of other countries, without regard to China’s declared foreign policies.

However, the CMC did not openly dispute or challenge PSC decisions, accepting the basic premise that civilian party control ultimately must prevail.

Technically, the PLA was subject to PSC oversight, PSC approval of PLA personnel, and the Communist Party apparatus operating within the armed forces. In practice, this meant the PLA kept a distance from questions of national strategy. Conversely, the ministries, bureaucratic apparatus, and PSC avoided intrusion on PLA daily operations. In practice, this meant PLA had significant “operational discretion” in response to external challenges.

No member of China’s diplomatic corps is a member of the Politburo. Conversely, all members of the CMC are treated with the same status as members of the Politburo, and even some generals treated as equals to the PSC.

Before Xi’s ascent, domestic stability was the primary priority of the government. Thus, in case of PLA friction with foreign military, as in the downing of US reconnaissance aircraft over Hainan in 2001, a step back was taken to introduce greater caution towards external forces, thus avoiding diversion of attention from domestic stability.

An important, fundamental principle from Deng onwards was that China should avoid direct conflict or war with the US until the PLA was “ready”, which was expected to take until 2020 or possibly longer.

This projection was of course based on China’s economic growth in prior decades, and expectation that China would become an economic equal to the US by that time.

Although not publicly admitted, the PSC’s economic growth outlook in 2014 has clearly changed, with internal PSC expectations that China’s growth rate would be entering a slower phase of growth, and “equality” with the US an objective postponed to some future date.

In essence, the PLA view remains now to delay direct conflict with the US until some later time when the PLA would be relatively better positioned to cope with what are currently considered to be greatly superior US military capabilities.

The PSC believes losing confrontations with the US military would endanger domestic confidence and stability and should therefore be avoided at this moment in history.

Under Xi, domestic stability and war avoidance remain guiding principles, but a more aggressive assertion of sovereignty over China’s territory is encouraged.

Whether this is a result of a more aggressive way of thinking by Xi, or a reevaluated perception of US reluctance to act decisively abroad, or a gesture to consolidate PLA support for Xi will remain discussed by historians in the future.

It has become evident that some senior Chinese have been closely attentive to President Putin’s evident agility and the slow pace of President Obama’s responses to multiple Russian probes in differing geographic locations.

Whatever the reason, the decision to go ahead with a new ADIZ was a decision of the CMC with approval of Xi, and with minimal consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Similarly, recent more aggressive behavior of PLA aircraft and naval vessels in close proximity to US aircraft and ships is definitely intended by the CMC.

From a purely military perspective, probing US military responses has continuously been practiced for several years. Now, at a time of apparent heightened caution, the PLA is probing not only what US responses might be, but how long it takes for the US to respond, and what the operational discretion accorded to the US military might be.

The PLA still operates under the principle that direct conflict should be avoided, so the PLA and US military have opened new direct discussions with each other on the “rules of engagement” in close proximity to each other, and to the area the PLA deems to be the sovereign territory it must defend.

Clearly, Xi and the PLA prefer these questions to be worked out military to military, avoiding the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the US State Department in broader, more politically charged issues of national interest.

Xi appears to have recognized that his own power requires the support of both the state security apparatus and the PLA. By July this year, he had appointed 11 new four-star generals, and by 2017 more than 22 of the 33 current four stars will have to retire and be replaced by Xi’s appointees.

To get a grip on the entire personnel process, Xi and Wang seized on the opportunity to accuse retired General Xu Caihou of corruption and remove him from the Party. Xu had been a Politburo member and Vice Chairman of the CMC. He was accused of controlling the entire personnel promotion process of the PLA for 13 years in exchange for favors and financial gains. This was the first time someone of such high military standing had been caught up in prosecution for corruption.

Xu Caihou’s prosecution enabled Xi to reach into the very core of the promotion system to tear up the loyalty system Xu had laboriously built and replace it with a system directly ruled by Xi. Within the PLA, a new anti-corruption, whistle-blower general was put in charge of housecleaning and rebuilding the loyalty structure.

Again, no one can yet know how far the anti-corruption purge in the PLA will go, as it will depend upon a judgment of the right balance between prosecutions and continued toleration of formerly corrupt officers who show allegiance to Xi.

Under the guidance of Xi and Wang Qishan the power structure of China and its Communist Party are being reconfigured. Complex maneuvers of Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai to establish their own personality networks were identified and deconstructed (although both remain alive, so far).

Other national and sub-national personality networks are most likely still functioning under this highly centralized system of governance, but Xi has shown unexpectedly vigorous actions to alter the expectations and ambitions of many other aspirants for future Chinese leadership positions.

Under Xi, foreign policy has been adjusted, with a hardened policy approach to protect China’s territorial integrity and a gradual effort to reshape the regional security order with a mix of diplomacy and provocations.

A question remains as to how Xi will channel deliberately heightened tensions with Japan in connection with China’s economic, security, and territorial intentions in the future.

The present configuration of seven military districts is likely to be changed in the near future. It was established in the conflict of the CCP with the Kuomintang in the 1940’s and is essentially obsolete now.

For example, only a small fraction of the PLA’s capabilities lies in proximity to India, where armed confrontations are frequent and long-term interests of India and China are likely to conflict (e.g. Himalayan watershed, passage through the Indian Ocean).

To improve PLA capabilities on the border with India, the PLA has built the second-longest aviation runway in the world in the Himalayas to enable quicker shifts in PLA resources from the heavily concentrated Northeast to the far less concentrated Southwest.

Most likely, Xi will continue to follow Deng’s dictum that China should behave like a big power but avoid involvement in world affairs that do not have direct relevance to Chinese interests.

This narrow focus of international behavior may gradually change as China becomes increasingly dependent on interaction with Africa, energy supplies from the Middle East, and exploitation of the Arctic Passage to Europe and Northwest Russia.

A gradual shift of budget priority to Chinese naval and air force capabilities will undoubtedly take place, opening yet other opportunities for Xi to develop new lines of loyalty alongside gradually extended Chinese military reach.

The lesson for the US to be drawn from this reconfiguration of the PLA is that foreign relations of other nations with China will be heavily influenced by the PLA.

Military to military contacts will likely prove to be increasingly important, especially with the evident “operational discretion” afforded the PLA.

This may prove to be a difficult challenge for President Obama, who evidently strongly prefers direct White House control of confrontations and conflicts with other nations, and reliance on the US diplomatic apparatus, while China depends much more heavily on the CMC in moments of potential critical encounters.

Keeping military to military lines of communication open will likely continue to be a Chinese priority.

The US NSC decision apparatus would be well advised to take this into account.