The Communist Party of China (CCP) plays a central role in foreign policy making in China. This is hardly surprising. It is, after all, the key strategic decision-making body in the People’s Republic. The fact that, as a result of its huge economy, the country the CCP has political stewardship over also has an increasingly important geopolitical role means, by default, that so does the CCP. As with many domestic issues, in the case of international affairs it is hard to find easy boundaries between the state carrying the name China and the Party that runs the place.
Historically, this has always been the case. Before it came to power in 1949, the CCP had an international dimension, even if most of that was devoted to marrying its own actions up with the global Communist movement largely led by the USSR. From 1949, the International Liaison Department within the CCP maintained links with other political parties. This work continues to this day. As the CCP was born from an international ideological movement, so internationalism was embedded into its identity and actions from the first day of its existence, in 1921. What it did which was unique was to make this a very Chinese process. This has ended up with the hybrid of Globalisation with Chinese characteristics. The party is in charge of this.
The CCP under Xi Jinping has been described as in a highly centralised and autocratic phase of its development. Despite this, foreign policy making remains a highly deliberative process. It involves stakeholders ranging from state and non-state businesses, Chinese investors, the military, and provincial and sub-provincial actors. China’s economy, in goods and services, through imports and exports, and flows of capital, is deeply integrated into the global one. That means that lines of foreign policy are the result of a combination of weighing historic considerations (what has the Party done before over a particular issue, such as Taiwan or the South China Sea), and the various interests of the parties above, and many others.
If Chinese foreign policy has a grand meta-narrative, then this is that it has to serve the creation of a strong, rich, sovereign state. Happily, at least for Chinese officials and politicians, this is also the aim of domestic policy too. In many ways, Chinese foreign policy because of the co-ordination role of the CCP, is much more integrated and, on the surface at least, rational than, perhaps, the approach of the US or the UK. With these two, domestic considerations sometimes cause the focus to shift from external to internal affairs, as happened in the Trump era, or in the Post-Brexit era in the UK. For China, the consensus position in the post-Deng period from the 1980s has been that working with international partners domestically brings know how, markets, sources of innovation, and resources that the country needs. This does not mean that China is an altruistic foreign policy actor. Far from it. It does mean that self-interest is a dominant motif in its global affairs. Once the particular focus of self-interest has been found then usually it is easy enough to work out what China wants in any particular area, or with specific issues.
The Drivers of Foreign Policy
If there are problems, then it comes through the tension that the CCP experiences between its historic insistence that the country’s internal affairs remain absolutely its to control. Experiences from the mid-19th century of semi-colonisation and war at the hands of other powers played a big part in the CCP coming to power. Much of its legitimacy is built on its ensuring that these interferences never recur. Despite this, it is inevitable since the late 1970s that attracting in foreign capital, know how, having large numbers of Chinese citizens travel, trade or study abroad, has allowed all sorts of spaces in the country’s domestic space where foreigners operate, and where they sometimes even have opportunities to interfere. The CCP is in the prime position to constantly regulate and police this. Under Xi, in particular, the country has been in a complex process both of allowing increasingly wide access to its finance and services sector (until recently very protected) but also setting in place a myriad of controls to ensure that politically, and socially, China remains under Party control. This accounts for the anomaly of the country having major clashes with the US and Europe since 2020 and the COVID-19 virus, but also seeing multi-nationals like Goldman Sachs and Swiss Re doing larger amounts of business in the country.
Beyond this, there is the division between China promising not to interfere in the affairs of other countries (it kept well away from the international responses to the Civil War in Syria from 2011, and then the military coup in Myanmar in early 2021) and yet for the first time in its modern history also having significant investments globally that mean, if only for the protection of its assets, it needs to get involved in other places whether it likes it or not.
The Party is also a foreign policy actor in the sense that China’s current political system is the single largest negative held against it by many in the outside world. As a country under a one Party system, and one subscribing to a Communist ideology, this antagonises large numbers of political figures, and publics, in the US, Europe and elsewhere. It is one of the many ironies of contemporary China that the entity that is a source of strategic cohesion and focus in foreign affairs, is also the cause of the most trenchant and committed opposition outside of the country. When many talk critically about the global role of China and its negative aspects, more often than not, they are referring to the role of the CCP and what it is imputed to be doing, rather than that of the country.