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The End of Smile Diplomacy?

John Lee

Recently praised for its deft statesmanship, Beijing has seemingly changed from pursuing ‘smile diplomacy’ to ham-fisted provocateur. Chinese diplomats remain as smooth as ever in spruiking ‘win-win’ relationships to an increasingly skeptical region. But beneath the façade of unity in Chinese decision-making is the gradual but inexorable fragmentation in the formulation of regional strategy and the conduct of foreign policy itself. In important areas, the People’s Liberation Army is increasingly running the show. This means trouble for China’s civilian leaders working overtime to sell the message of China’s ‘peaceful development’, and for America and its wary allies in Asia.

Tensions in maritime Asia have been simmering beneath the surface for several decades. But the past few months have seen a major downturn in Asian harmony. In March, China raised regional eyebrows in East and Southeast Asia by referring to claims over the South China Sea as part of Chinese ‘core interests’—elevating such claims to the same level as those over Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. In August, China’s navy announced that it will stage live ammunition drills in the Yellow Sea, having condemned recent and planned US-South Korea naval exercises. And this week, Beijing has raised the diplomatic heat by declaring that Beijing will take ‘strong countermeasures’ in response to news that Japan is extending the detention of Zhan Qixiong, a Chinese fishing boat captain whose boat collided with Japanese coast vessels in disputed waters in the East China Sea over two weeks ago.

The formation and execution of Chinese foreign policy has always existed in a black-box. It still does but we now know that there are more elements inside the black-box than was once imagined. For example, a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute points to the rise of disparate groups all exerting considerable influence on Beijing: the business sector, think-tankers and academics, state-media, and the hundreds of thousands if not millions of ‘netizens’ voicing strong opinions on blog-sites. As the report, ‘New Foreign Policy Actors in China,’ argues, ‘Only by persistently engaging a broad spectrum of Chinese foreign policy actors… and integrating them into engagement strategies can foreign policy makers succeed in securing China’s cooperation.‘Chinese foreign policy decision making is indeed fragmenting – but not into many segments of equal weight. When it comes to recent Chinese assertiveness in maritime Asia, there is one reemerging player exercising influence above all others and it is the PLA.

The common wisdom is that the role of the PLA in Chinese foreign policy has been substantially narrowed since the late 1990s. Evidence for such a conviction? The PLA has not secured a seat in the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) since 1997. While Chinese President Hu Jintao is the only member of the 11-person Central Military Commission which has supreme command over the country’s armed forces, he is the Chairman. Moreover, PLA officials seemingly exercise little influence over important sub-groups such as the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group which advises the PSC.

However, in the truth, the PLA’s influence over Chinese foreign policy has been on the ascendance since the institutional reforms in the 1990s.

First, because the PLA is formally removed from the civilian decision-making processes, it is not hampered and constrained by the turf wars that frequently occur between Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials and agencies. For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs vigorously competes with other entities such as the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of State Security, and Ministry of Commerce in formulating Chinese foreign policy. Within the Politburo itself the obsessive emphasis on ‘consensus decision-making’ represents a mechanism to conceal disagreement between powerful individuals and factions rather than harmony and unanimity. Ironically, as it is only answerable to a divided civilian government with no clear leadership and decision-making structure, the PLA is afforded more leeway and discretion to make and execute foreign policy than it might otherwise have.

Second, while the civilian apparatus is weakened by backbiting and discord, the PLA remains the most cohesive, organized and effective organization in China with a relatively clear chain of command and decision-making. As Chinese strategic interests in the region expand from the Taiwan Straits to the Indian Ocean, the poorly organized and divided civilian leadership is finding the managing of China’s extensive and complex foreign affairs increasingly difficult. Unencumbered by ‘consensus decision-making’ of Chinese domestic politics, the PLA is often the only organization capable of responding rapidly and decisively to regional developments, particularly when it comes to territorial and maritime disputes. In short time, this has emboldened the PLA to formulate and articulate important aspects of Chinese foreign policy – such as the naming Chinese claims in the South China Sea as amongst the country’s ‘core interests’.

Third, China’s civilian institutional processes and the political will of its leaders to rein in military officers who step out of line are weak. In addition, the PLA tends to discipline wayward officers who violate military directives while going light on officers who violate civilian directives. Remember that in China’s authoritarian system, political power still grows out of the barrel of a gun’ as Mao Zedong once said – and the PLA ultimately has its hand on the trigger.

It is no surprise then that PLA officers led the public escalation of hostile words against Tokyo following the detention of Chinese fishing captain Zhan, with officials on Beijing only subsequently following suit. More seriously, PLA officers were describing Chinese claims in the South China Sea as part of the country’s ‘core interests’ months before US National Security Council’s Jeffrey Bader and the State Department’s James Steinberg heard it from CCP officials in March. The Chinese vessels that came close to colliding with the US survey ship Impeccable in March 2009 was an action initiated by the Chinese navy (PLAN) with seemingly little consultation with civilian officials in Beijing.

In almost every instance where disputes have flared up between China and other countries in the East China Sea, Yellow Sea, South China Sea or Indian Ocean, the PLA initially called the shots both on the high seas and in the media; prompting civilian leaders to subsequently hold the line, or wrestle back control of the situation from the PLA without losing face in the process. Strategic tension with China is difficult enough to manage for the United States and Asian allies. The prospect of a PLA going rogue makes it that much harder.

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