Some days ago this article by Zheng Wang was published on the NYT website. It asks the question “Does China Have a Foreign Policy?”. The answer of the author leans towards a no rather than a yes. In a nutshell, the argument of Zheng is that Chinese leadership largely underestimates the importance of Foreign Policy and demonstrates to be rather underprepared about it.
I agree with the conclusion that the chinese scholar draws but not at all with his argument. Chinese Foreign Policy still has a long way to go to keep up with the rest of the world, especially considered the importance the PRC is increasingly acquiring internationally, however I’m not so sure that, as Zheng suggests, the reason for the underdevelopment in China’s international relations is to be found in a lack of understanding and confidence in it by Beijing’s decision-making apparatus. Chinese bureaucrats could be a little Sinocentric but they’re not ignorant or stupid. They know how important the relations with the outside world are. If we look at China’s recent history, they have several times demonstrated to be rather shrewd and savvy in managing PRC foreign relations: just think about the juggling with pushes coming from US and soviet blocks during Cold War, or Deng’s “hide our capacities and bide our time” policy, which has acted as a steady political ground for China’s economy to rise. Besides, nowadays, Chinese nomenklatura is more cosmopolitan than ever: they study in the West (a quick look into any American or European university is enough to confirm that), they casually travel and work around the globe. Chinese people are increasingly aware of how things work economically and politically outside of China, whatever their opinion about them might be.
To me, the problem of PRC’s recent foreign policy lies in the decision-making system rather than in decision makers. The old times when Mao and Deng despotically decided on the policies to adopt are over. The system has in the meantime modernized, becoming more sophisticated and thus complicated. More agencies within the government have a say in the decisions that are made. In the field of Foreign Policy there are the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Politburo Standing Committee and the People’s Liberation Army. Despite the non-transparent nature of the dynamics between these institutions in the decision making process (which is another problem altogether, hindering a proper understanding of China’s foreign policy), we do know that there is a high degree of corruption, factionalism and competition between and within these agencies. An apt example of such a situation regards one of the most salient foreign policy issues for China nowadays: South China Sea. In an excellent report published in April 2012 (“Stirring Up the South China Sea”, downloadable online) International Crisis Group has showed how the disorganization and competition between different government agencies directly or indirectly involved in foreign-policy-making have affected PRC’s attitude in the issue, often making it contradictory and inconsequential.
Just like the new leadership has promised some reforms in domestic politics, making some part of the system more simple and transparent, it wouldn’t be bad (and, to me, it won’t be unlikely) to see something like that in the field of international politics as well. One good point to start from would be a containment of the power and prestige that the PLA now enjoys in China’s foreign policy. Zheng Wang makes a good point when he talks about the detrimental effects of hardcore nationalism on PRC’s foreign relations. Well, more often than not nationalistic (and sometimes offensive) statements about international issues like South China Sea, East China Sea, Taiwan and the relationship with US, come from PLA officials.
Finally, I concur with Mr Zheng that the last leadership turnover have seen a lack of foreign affairs experts in the highest governmental ranks, nevertheless I wouldn’t say that this automatically jeopardizes Beijing’s foreign policy. People like Wang Qishan (now in the Politburo Standing Committee, who has in the past worked extensively with Western institutions), the new ambassador in the US Cui Tiankai (international studies alumni of Johns Hopkins university, an institutions which has been bridging PRC and US politics for years), the new Foreign minister Wang Yi (who has until recently worked in the difficult position of Minister in the Taiwan Affairs Office)… are not to be underestimated.