Sabine Mokry is a PhD candidate at Leiden University’s Political Science Department and a visiting researcher at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg. Before pursuing her PhD full-time, she worked at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) as a research associate focusing on China’s foreign and security policy.
President Xi Jinping has cast himself as the sole herald of China’s foreign policy. Following his lead, many observers base their assessment of the Chinese government’s intentions on his statements alone. However, in a recent article published in The Pacific Review, I demonstrate how China’s foreign policy rhetoric is still shaped by various actors within the Chinese government.
Xi consolidated his power quickly after assuming power in 2012: He was named the ‘core’ of the party leadership much earlier than his predecessors. Perhaps more importantly, he promoted close aids and key supporters to important positions. In addition, the shift from ‘collective leadership’ to personalistic rule and the return to the Maoist idea that ‘the party leads all’ are important changes in China’s political environment under Xi that seriously affect the foreign policy process. Under ‘collective leadership’, each member of the Politburo Standing Committee used to oversee one policy era. By strengthening coordinating agencies, such as the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms and the Central National Security Commission, all chaired by Xi Jinping, he effectively dismantled the collective leadership system. Besides, Xi’s name and ideology have already been enshrined in the party constitution. Against this backdrop, it did not come as a surprise that he abolished the term limits on the State Presidency in the state constitution and stayed in power for a third term. The centralization of political power in foreign policy-making under Xi Jinping resulted in the General Secretary himself and party bodies increasing their control over foreign policy.
However, the systematic analysis of Chinese foreign policy statements issued between 2008 and 2022 revealed divergences between Xi Jinping’s statements at the strategic level and statements from other foreign policy actors at the policy-planning level. In addition, there were also divergences between different foreign policy actors located at the policy-planning level. The degree of divergence between policy levels fluctuated throughout the analyzed time frame. The biggest discrepancies appeared between the Premier and the other actors. The smallest discrepancies were between the CCP General Secretary and other foreign policy actors.
I examined foreign policy statements issued by the CCP General Secretary, the Premier, the State Council Information Office, and the Foreign Minister in the article. The CCP General Secretary holds the ultimate decision-making authority in all policy areas, including foreign policy, and represents the PRC internationally as State President. His foreign policy statements are expressed at the strategic policy-making level. His political work report presented to the Party Congress held every five years is the most authoritative document in China’s political system.
In addition, I examined his speeches in front of international and domestic audiences. With now former Premier Li Keqiang being increasingly sidelined by Xi, observers agree that he has little influence on China’s foreign policy. Occasionally, the Premier represents the PRC at international meetings. Addressing a domestic audience, the Premier presents the government work report each year to the National People’s Congress, which contains a few sections on China’s foreign policy, reviewing its achievements of the past year and outlining plans for the coming year. After the CCP Central Committee, the State Council, headed by the Premier, is the second major coordination body in China’s political system. Its Information Office, closely linked to the CCP Propaganda Department, publishes White Papers explaining the Chinese government’s position to the outside world. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for implementing day-to-day foreign policy. Moreover, on occasion, the Foreign Minister represents China at international meetings. Domestically, the Foreign Minister summarizes China’s foreign policy at an annual symposium speaking to diplomats and foreign policy experts at the end of each year.
In the article, I understand China’s national interest as constructed. The article compares foreign policy rhetoric by the above-introduced actors by combining this conceptualization of the national interest with the nature of fragmented authoritarianism in China. Through quantitative and qualitative content analyses, the article examines whether China’s foreign policy rhetoric has become more coherent over time. It does so by examining the differences and shifts in how prominent different components of the construction of China’s national interest feature in foreign policy statements.
To identify the different components of a country’s national interest, I link Donald E. Nuechterlein‘s influential conception of the national interest to recent empirical investigations into China’s national interests. First, defending its territory, political system, and citizens are in a country’s interest (in Figure 2 below, this is expressed as ‘Def’). Nuechterlein describes ‘defence interests’ as ‘the protection of the nation-state and its citizens against the threat of physical violence directed from another state and/or externally inspired threat to its system of government’. Second, expanding its external economic relations is in a country’s interest (‘Econ’). Nuechterlein describes economic interests as ‘the enhancement of the nation-state’s well-being in relations with other states’. Third, it is in a country’s interest to lead global governance (‘Gov’). Under ‘world order,’ Nuechterlein discusses the ‘maintenance of a political and economic system in which the nation-state may feel secure, and its citizens and commerce may operate peacefully outside its borders’. Fourth, it is in a country’s interest to promote its values (‘Val’). For Nuechterlein, ideological interests refer to ‘the protection and furtherance of a set of values which the people of a nation-state share and believe to be universally good’. Reviews of the literature on China’s foreign policy suggest that Nuechterlein overlooks regional order and the provision of global public goods. Hence, I added two additional components to my conceptualization: Fifth, it is in a country’s interest to establish itself as the leading power in the region (Reg) it is situated in. Sixth, I consider offering global public goods (‘Publ’) also as in a country’s interest.
Identified divergence between policy levels
The degree of divergence in how prominently the different components of the construction of China’s national interest featured in foreign policy statements at the strategic and the policy-planning level fluctuated throughout the analyzed time frame. Figure 1 illustrates these patterns. In 2008, the degree of divergence between the two policy-making levels was by far the highest. Overall, the extent of divergence between the two policy levels did not evolve linearly. Instead, there were frequent shifts in the degree of divergence. Between 2009 and 2012, the degree of divergence increased and then decreased again. More precisely, in 2013 and 2015, it was comparatively high. In 2014, it was particularly low. Between 2016 and 2021, there was again an increase followed by a decrease in the degree of divergence. In 2022, the divergence between the strategic and policy planning level was again high.
As I demonstrate in the article, the divergences between policy levels appeared especially in the components of the construction of China’s national interest to defend China’s territory, political system, and citizens, lead global governance, and control the region. Regarding defend China’s territory, political system, and citizens, there were particularly pronounced differences in emphasis between the two policy levels. In almost all years, the divergence related to this component of the construction of China’s national interest was much higher than average. This was also the case for lead global governance in 2013, 2015, 2018, and 2022. In 2011–2013 and 2016–2017, the divergence between policy levels for control the region was also higher than average. For the most part, defend China’s territory, political system, and citizens appeared more prominently in the policy planning than on the strategic level. Only recently, there has been more emphasis on the strategic level. At the beginning of the time frame, lead global governance featured more prominently on the strategic level; towards the end, it was more prominent on the policy planning level.
The identified divergence between foreign policy actors
At first view, there were only minor differences in how prominently the six components of the construction of China’s national interest appeared in statements by different foreign policy actors. As Figure 2 demonstrates, if one ranks the six components based on relative salience, they appear in the same order across all foreign policy actors. Offer global public goods appears as the most salient component of the construction of China’s national interest across statements from all actors, and control the region features as the least salient component. Except for statements by the Foreign Minister, lead global governance is the second most salient component. Regarding defend China’s territory, political system, and citizens and expand China’s economic relations, there are some differences in emphasis between foreign policy actors.
However, over time, there were considerable differences between foreign policy actors in their emphasis on different components of the construction of China’s national interest. As there was no linear pattern in how the degree of divergence emerged over the years, China’s foreign policy rhetoric did not become more or less coherent. Overall, the biggest divergence appeared in 2016, the smallest in 2011. Between 2018 and 2020, China’s foreign policy rhetoric was fairly aligned. There was little divergence between the General Secretary and the other foreign policy actors. Over time, these differences were largely decreasing. On the other end of the spectrum, most divergence appeared between the Premier and other foreign policy actors between 2008–2010 and 2014–2017. Overall, there were more differences between the State Council’s and all other statements than between the Foreign Minister’s and all others. Between 2010 and 2014, the patterns in the degree of divergence developed in parallel and decreased slightly. After 2014, there were increases and decreases in divergence, and the patterns between State Council and Foreign Minister followed each other.
Across all components of the construction of China’s national interest, discrepancies decreased over time. The patterns for defend China’s territory, political system, and citizens, lead global governance, and expand China’s economic relations were particularly noteworthy. For defend China’s territory, political system, and citizens, discrepancies between the General Secretary and other actors were fairly constant. Discrepancies between the SCIO, the Foreign Minister, and other actors shifted constantly, but after 2017, these discrepancies decreased significantly, and the overall patterns were similar to discrepancies between the General Secretary and other actors. For lead global governance, discrepancies between the General Secretary, the SCIO, and other actors were fairly similar. Regarding expanding economic relations, the General Secretary’s statements became more aligned with other foreign policy actors.
The substantial divergence between the strategic and policy planning levels indicates that China’s foreign policy rhetoric remains fragmented. Fluctuations in the degree of divergence between policy levels show that, at times, attempts at making China’s foreign policy rhetoric more coherent succeed. The fact that the different foreign policy actors put roughly the same amount of attention on the different constructions of national interest is also a sign of the centralization of the foreign policy process. As the degree of divergence between the General Secretary and other foreign policy actors is smallest, Xi certainly seems to guide China’s foreign policy rhetoric. However, the considerable divergence in how much emphasis different foreign policy actors attribute to the different constructions of national interest shows considerable differences between foreign policy actors underneath the surface.
The documented differences show that paying attention to the different actors shaping China’s foreign policy rhetoric is necessary. Since the systematic analysis of Chinese foreign policy statements provided evidence for fragmentation and centralization, both tendencies continue to affect China’s foreign policy rhetoric and should still be at play in China’s foreign policy process. Hence, despite the increasing centralization of political power in China’s political system and its implications for the foreign policy process, it is still worth examining what roles different actors beyond the General Secretary, such as the Premier, State Council, and Foreign Minister, play.