The efforts to strengthen China’s foreign policy-making system in Xi Jinping’s second term attracted attention at the National People’s Congress (NPC) held in March 2018. A glimpse of those efforts was seen immediately after the end of the NPC during Kim Jong-un’s visit to China, on March 25–28. During Kim’s stay in Beijing, President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning, newly appointed Vice President of the People’s Republic of China Wang Qishan, Politburo member Yang Jiechi, and newly appointed State Councilor and Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi, all took part in events related to the visit.
The features of China’s stronger foreign policy-making system as a result of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China held last October and the NPC following the Party Congress were visible. First, Wang Huning was promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee in the National Congress, putting him in the top leadership. Wang was a researcher of international politics and served as the “brain” of the Party, having acted as a foreign policy advisor to Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao and having written important guiding theory for the Communist Party. On the State side, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs and State Councilor at the time, Yang Jiechi, was promoted to the Politburo on the Party side. Following that, Wang Qishan was appointed Vice President of the People’s Republic of China at the recent NPC, and his responsibilities also include foreign relations. Wang Qishan’s retirement from the Politburo Standing Committee at the previous National Congress drew attention, but it accorded with existing practices. Also, on a practical level, Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi was promoted to State Councilor as the successor to Yang Jiechi, while keeping his former status as the foreign minister.
1. Development of a high-level foreign policy-making system
Wang Huning, who worked his way into the Politburo Standing Committee, frequently accompanied Hu Jintao on overseas trips as the long-serving head of the Central Policy Research Office, together with Ling Jihua, chief of the General Office. Individually, Wang Huning has had little contact with foreigners on his own, and it is therefore difficult to understand him from the outside. He is thought to be a close advisor to the supreme leader, and has served as a foreign policy advisor but was later promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee after serving in the Politburo. From the perspective of the traditional division of roles among Politburo Standing Committee members, there are two people who are in directly in charge of foreign affairs: President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. It was originally thought that Wang Huning, upon his promotion to the Politburo during the first Xi Jinping administration, would focus more on big-picture matters, such as the guiding theory for the Communist Party, than on specific foreign affairs. In addition, since he was promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee and was seemingly in charge of communist ideology, it was thought that he would no longer be directly involved in foreign affairs. However, during Kim’s visit to China, he was the only Politburo Standing Committee member other than Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang who was officially reported to have been involved in activities during Kim’s visit,  so it remains to be seen as to what extent his duties will involve foreign relations.
The post of Vice President of the People’s Republic of China, which Wang Qishan assumed, had been mostly a symbolic one with no major responsibilities associated with it. However, he had a career as a financial expert, and cultivated personal connections during negotiations with the United States when he was Vice Premier; above all, he has the full trust of Xi Jinping with his appointment as Vice President, so Wang Qishan is expected to play an important role in high-level foreign relations, especially in US relations. Indeed, immediately upon assuming his post, he took part in a meeting with the Philippine Foreign Minister on March 23,  and participated in events during Kim Jong-un’s visit, which suggests that he is involved not only in economic relations with the United States but also in diplomatic activities in general.
2. Policies emphasizing foreign relations and policies focusing on Party organizations
If Wang Qishan is involved in China’s foreign policy at a high level, he will be supported on a working level by Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is noteworthy that over the course of last year’s National Congress and the recent NPC, these officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have been promoted within the Party and their State institution, respectively. It is the first time that Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials have served in the Politburo since Qian Qichen from 1992 to 2002. In the Party, Qian Qichen was the Deputy Director of the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (headed by Jiang Zemin), and on the State side he was also the Vice Premier in charge of foreign affairs. Then, from his successor, Tang Jiaxuan, to Dai Bingguo, and until Yang Jiechi (in the first term of Xi Jinping), the highest-ranking person from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was only a member of the Central Committee on the Party side and a State Councilor, one rank below Vice Premier, on the State side. Restoring the Politburo and Vice Premier posts from the Qian Qichen era has been a long-cherished dream of officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In this century, China has become a global power after becoming a member of the WTO, and it has often been pointed out that the status of its diplomats has waned despite it becoming a major influence in other countries.  As globalization progressed, various ministries and local governments other than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs became widely involved in international affairs, effectively lessening the role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself. However, this is a common phenomenon in other countries as well. Compared to the foreign ministries of other countries, however, because it never had control over traditional external economic and security affairs and has only a narrow jurisdiction, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ duties have been limited to carrying out foreign policies or acting as the government’s foreign relations office. Globalization progressed in the era from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ control over increasingly expanding and complicated foreign-related matters has weakened. On the other hand, the leadership is far more interested in domestic issues than in foreign relations, and both the Party and the State are more interested in public security or party propaganda agencies—which has always been said to exceed their interest in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 
The Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Co-operation (now the Ministry of Commerce), which once oversaw external economics, played an important role in charge of trade policy and external loans, and since the 1990s it has produced members of the Politburo Standing Committee and the Politburo on the Party side, and vice premiers on the State side, including Li Lanqing and Wu Yi. Meanwhile, in contrast with the rising status of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Co-operation, the status of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has declined.  The background to the superior status of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Co-operation is that, since the policy of reform and opening-up, there were the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s basic policies, which focused on economic development.
Also, it is interesting to compare it with the military’s responsibility for security. In recent years, in the Politburo, the military has received two posts from members of the Central Military Commission; in addition, the third highest-ranking military officer served as a State Councilor and the Minister of National Defense on the State side. On the other hand, Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, as mentioned earlier, have not been posted to the Politburo since the retirement of Qian Qichen, and the highest-ranking person in the State has served as a State Councilor. The promotion of a series of Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials implies that the diplomatic executives in the Party and in the State, who have had a relatively lower status than the military and external economic divisions, have finally seen their status raised to a certain extent.
The background to these developments appears to be a policy that emphasizes foreign relations, which was seen in Xi Jinping’s first term, along with a policy that places Party over State. Last year, with Yang Jiechi promoted to the Politburo, there was the presumption that, just as with Qian Qichen in the past, Yang would be promoted from State Councilor to Vice Premier at the NPC in March, while at the same time, Foreign Minister Wang Yi would be promoted to State Councilor. However, although there is a difference in rank between the Vice Premier and the State Councilor, there is no hierarchical relationship in the scope of duties,  and no need in the State Council to have two persons in charge of foreign affairs. While Yang Jiechi, the highest-ranking Politburo member from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has moved from State Councilor to a post outside the State institution, Wang Yi, as the next-ranked Foreign Minister, served as a member of the State Councilor. As a result, there is a structure similar to the Party-dominated one in that the two top-ranked military members up to now have been members of the Politburo without posts in the State Council, but the third-highest ranking member of the military serves as a State Councilor and Minister of National Defense.
3. The role of the upgraded diplomatic officials
So, what is the role of Politburo member Yang Jiechi, who has only a post in the Communist Party? In Xi Jinping’s first term, Yang Jiechi had already taken over from his predecessor, Dai Bingguo, and had been a member of the Central Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group and the head of the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group Office, which provides administrative support to the Leading Small Group. With the Central Foreign Affairs Commission newly established,  Yang Jiechi was appointed Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission. Often in China, even if a new institution is established in a top-down manner, the related laws, staffing, budgets, and the like are not prepared in coordination with one another, or even at the same time, and while in many cases the institution may not function smoothly at first, its role will gradually be determined as work progresses. In that sense, although the actual state of this new institution is currently thought to be nothing more than simply changing the name of the existing Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group and its affairs office, it is necessary to pay attention to how it will be strengthened in the future.
Furthermore, it is expected that Yang Jiechi will have the important responsibility of foreign negotiations as a high-level diplomat. For Yang Jiechi, an expert on the United States who has strong ties to the Bush family and others through his long-serving diplomatic experience with US affairs, including as ambassador to the US, and Wang Yi, who started as an expert on Japan and served as ambassador to Japan, the two appear to have divided their roles, with the former focusing on US relations and the latter focusing on Asian affairs. In the future, however, Yang Jiechi is one more powerful piece to develop Chinese diplomacy, with him acting as a diplomatic player at a higher level than in his previvor post as State Councilor. In response to Kim Jong-un’s visit to China, Yang Jiechi was given the title “Special Representative of President Xi Jinping” for his visit to South Korea, and he is already being sent abroad as a special envoy for specific important issues. It is likely that his role as a negotiator will only increase.  In addition, in the high-level Japan–China economic dialogue held in April, Wang Yi, who was given the new title of State Councilor, acted as the leader of the Chinese negotiating team. Xi Jinping, who long-served in the countryside without a solid base in the central government, has solidified his power base by appointing many of his personal connections from Zhejiang or Fujian Provinces. However, in the diplomatic sector there are limits to regional staff, and Xi Jinping will, at least for the time being, be reliant on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff, including Yang Jiechi, who is said to have been the subject of strong influence from the Shanghai clique of the traditional Jiang Zemin faction.
Xi Jinping, compared with his predecessors, has been showing greater interest in foreign relations and not hesitated to express his desire for a stronger China. In placing Wang Qishan at the high level of Vice President and lifting the status of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to an even higher level, to some extent, Xi Jinping strengthened the foreign policy-making system as a whole. There have been many criticisms that China’s behavior was becoming assertive in recent years,  but since the pronouncement of the judgment by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the South China Sea issue two years ago, China has, if anything, made tactical policy adjustments and kept a relatively moderate posture. At the same time, China has been avoiding direct confrontation with the United States, while promoting the One Belt One Road Initiative to try to expand its area of influence, at least west of China. With today’s world becoming more chaotic and the liberal order in retreat, China, which has improved the basic physical strength of its diplomacy by enhancing its national strength, continues to develop a system to deploy more skillful diplomatic tactics on a variety of fronts instead of simply taking the usual assertive posture.
The Central National Security Commission was established in Xi Jinping’s first term, and the foreign policy-making system was strengthened with the establishment of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission in his second term. Many of these strengthening measures are aimed at streamlining the policy-making process and coordination at high levels in the CCP. However, the Central Committee could only handle important diplomatic or strategic problems. As in the case of the leading small groups related to foreign and security affairs, they are held on an ad hoc basis when a problem occurs, and often deal with problems reactively.  As a result, they tend to be slow to respond to sudden events such as a crisis.  However, even though there are problems with policy-making and coordination at such a high level, what has become a problem so far in the practice of China’s foreign policy is the deviation between the intentions of the high-level leadership and the actions in the field at the policy implementation level; an inflexible response in the field to decisions from the top; a climate of patronizing overreaction; and the avoidance of accepting responsibility in a crisis. These stem from the fundamental structures of Chinese politics with the Central Committee at the center, deciding major policies, while the execution of those policies lies with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other implementing agencies—and comes through the institutional culture that is deeply rooted in each Party and State structure. While China’s diplomatic system has now been strengthened, it should also be noted that it will not lead to the improvement of structural problems of the sort that seem to be revealed each time foreign relations become strained.
11In relation to this, there is a view that, particularly with the series of tensions with neighboring countries that increased in 2010, since these events were caused by individual factors, it is impossible to say that they made China switch to a hardline in its foreign policy in recent years.
12Yun Sun, “Chinese National Security Decision-Making: Progress and Challenges,” The Brookings Institutions, 2013, p.10.
13Michael D. Swaine, “The PLA Role in China’s Foreign Policy and Crisis Behavior,” in Phillip C. Saundeers and Andrew Scobell eds., PLA Influence on China’s National Security Policy Making, California: Stanford University Press, 2015, pp. 150–151.