Foreign Policy Making Under Xi Jinping: The Case of the South China Sea

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 4, No. 2, February 2016

Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond (L), and President Xi Jinping (R) in London, 2015. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Kerry Brown, Ph.D.
King’s College, London


This paper takes the example of the Chinese claims on the South China Sea, particularly since the appointment of Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China in late 2012, and looks at the ways in which the Party and the government interact over foreign policy issues, along with how others contribute to this process. It shows that the Party leadership works through articulation of highly abstract macro policy goals, issuing high-level guidance for state, military, corporate and public entities without risking specific details. There is then some space for these “lower bodies” to negotiate and create their own standpoint. This does not mean that the process is solely top-down. What it does mean is that the Party under Xi has a dynamic process by which it allows voices within society to contribute to the formulation of policy in an iterative manner. It also shows how for the Xi leadership the South China Sea is part of a process to establish other forms of legitimacy beyond those simply described as economic. In this way, the Party is able to present itself as the restorer of national pride and rejuvenation and gain immense political capital from this. In this context, the South China Sea is as much a domestic issue as a foreign policy one, something that is often missed in external analysis of this issue.

The Location of Foreign Policy in Contemporary China

Who makes foreign policy in China, and where?  As China becomes an increasingly global player, this question becomes more important. Defining who the key players are in formulating, articulating and then implementing foreign policy in any country is a major issue. Answering this question is, after all, a great part of the work of diplomatic missions placed in foreign countries.

Looking at a ‘hot,’ topical and fast developing issue for China like its maritime territorial demands over the South and East China Seas does at least give some immediate insight into which parties in China are speaking, what they are saying, and any differences between them. As this paper will argue later, the South China Sea issue is not, in Chinese eyes, a straightforwardly foreign one, but rather it occupies an important space in domestic politics. Even so, as an issue that evidently matters deeply to Chinese leaders, and presumably to Chinese people generally (this is what Chinese officials and diplomats claim), and which involves both regional and global partners, the question of the South China Sea is where one can look for what could be claimed to be the real ‘face’ of Chinese foreign policy. It occupies an area beyond the comforting rhetoric that usually surrounds more distant issues with indirect and remote impact on one’s territory. It is something which impacts China immediately and intimately, and therefore shows the country’s real priorities.

One assumption would be that the most authoritative place to look for the articulation of Chinese views on this issue would be the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), which would be the usual guardian and spokesperson for this area of policy. The MFA through various means, ranging from spokespeople to published declarations, has produced much language on many occasions in the last decade about the maritime disputes, particularly since their intensification in 2009.  The question is, however, just how significant and indicative these statements are. Do they represent the views of the real power holders, and if so, in what ways? Do they reflect Party views on this issue, and what kind of relationship is there between Party and government iterations?

Statements made by Chinese officials from the foreign affairs apparatus do have a high degree of uniformity, indicating some level of design and careful formulation. They contain generic language stressing China’s peace-loving nature, its observance of international norms in terms of negotiation, and its commitment to peace and harmony. They are the ideal side of the Chinese government as they face the world, with a language deployed by seasoned, and increasingly urbane, foreign ministry workers. As Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying stated in June 2015, “China’s attitude on the South China Sea issue is responsible and its policy consistent, clear and unchanged.”[1] A typical example of what this ‘consistent, clear and unchanged’ policy is was given by Hua’s colleague, spokesperson Hong Lei in April 2015:

We maintain that the relevant disputes should be resolved through negotiation and consultation by countries directly concerned, and stay committed to safeguarding regional peace and stability and pushing for mutually beneficial and win-win cooperation along with countries concerned. The situation of this region is generally stable, and relevant cooperation has been moved forward with positive results. It is hoped that relevant countries would fully respect the efforts by regional countries to safeguard regional peace and stability, and do more things that contribute to regional peace and stability.”[2]

Statements by the MFA throughout 2014 and 2015 responded in a rigorously consistent way to questions around the building of permanent structures on some of the contested island features, the move by the Philippines to take the issue to an international court of arbitration, and American statements of concern. China was neither “accepting nor participating in the arbitral proceeding unilaterally initiated by the Philippines,”[3]  this was  “not an issue between China and the US,”[4] and that it was “lawful, reasonable, justified and beyond reproach for China to carry out construction on some stationed islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands.”[5] Such utterances are located in a context where China stresses its love of peace, its commitment to consensus and its desire to work with all parties for a negotiated outcome.[6]

For all the rhetorical reasonableness, however, there is high awareness that these are a façade, concealing an agenda, as well as domestic decision-making structures and processes that are far more complex. The MFA in this domestic environment is a servant or messenger, with low status as a ministry. It has more powers to speak than to do.  The clue to this is its role within the Party. The most senior foreign policy official, on paper at least, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, sits on the 200-strong Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, and on the State Council as a Minister, beside his 27 other ministerial colleagues. But the Central Committee is only the outer vestibule of true power in the Chinese political universe. Above him are the State Councillor and his predecessor as Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi. But he too ranks outside the 25 most powerful individuals in the country, those who sit on the full Politburo. And Wang is a long way from the true vortex of power – the Standing Committee, with its seven members.

Policy areas in China are subject to vested interest just as much as material and economic resources are. In many ways, they are the veins along which power flows. Control the policy and you can have some control over the outcomes. So it is not surprising that there is evidence of fierce competition amongst those vying for influence over such a key area as China’s relations to its region and to the wider world. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, with only 3,000 officials (fewer than those populating the UK or the Australian foreign ministries) is merely the tip of an iceberg. As scholars Linda Jakobson and Dean Knox elegantly illustrated in a paper from 2010, around the MFA are many different stakeholders, centres of influence and decision makers (these will be outlined in more detail below).[7] If the MFA is the messenger, however, where do its messages come from?

The Role of the Party in Foreign Policy Under Xi: Not Just Speaking about the Historic Mission, but Doing Something About it

In view of the crucial political importance of foreign policy and its often intimate links with domestic issues (something the South China Sea issue illustrates well, as will be shown later), it is not surprising that the ruling Communist Party set the parameters and tone. The question however is how they do this, and in what ways China’s system differs, for instance, from a multi-party democratic system like the US or those in the European Union, or, for that matter, even from non-democratic ones like that of Russia.

The leadership at the elite level of Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the Party offers a very good opportunity to look into this question.  This is because of Xi’s particular activism and interest in foreign affairs issues (see below). This activism can be partly explained by his own political personality and the ways in which it impacts his style of leadership – something we have seen unfold since he was appointed in November 2012. But it also arises from an historic context, one in which China not only has a greater foreign policy space and impact, but also shows signs of being deeply conscious of this.

The treatment of the South China Seas issue is symptomatic of this change. Even in the middle of the decade from 2000 to 2010, during the era of Hu Jintao as General Secretary of the Communist Party, it would have been surprising to hear someone state that the South China Sea disputes were a high priority for the country. They were part of a constellation of issues left over from the era of colonisation and China’s hard march towards modernity, which it labels as ‘The Century of Humiliation.’ While Hong Kong and Macau had reverted to Chinese sovereignty in the late 1990s, the key issue for Hu’s China was more around managing its new prominence in the world through the popular concept at that time of ‘peaceful rise’ (和平崛起heping jueqi),[8] rather than daring to stake out new territory on which to issue strong views. Tensions with Japan, which flared up on the streets in 2005, were perhaps a precursor of things to come. But tellingly, when China finally did issue something approaching a statement of its core interests through its then state councillor for foreign affairs, the South and East China Sea did not explicitly figure.[9]

China’s transition to becoming the world’s second largest economy in 2010 had a psychological impact bigger than was realised at the time, when it was noted largely as yet another statistic the country was toppling. It perhaps made the central leadership to realise that they had a foreign policy attitude that was not suitable to their real importance and status. From this time onwards, complaints about US containment of their strategic space started to escalate.  Xi is therefore the first leader who speaks within, and to, this context of China as a truly global actor, who is aware of its international role and wants to state it more forcefully.

This desire for greater status for China and for a global role more commensurate with its economic importance and size has given rise to a Chinese narrative articulated towards the world, in particular by Xi as the chief spokesperson for the Party State, which is more confident, more aware of its core economic and political role, and more willing to state (or even, to use a more loaded word, assert) its interests. This has been more than just rhetorical. Xi Jinping has visited 33 countries in 30 months up to September 2015, on four continents, including three trips to Russia, three to Indonesia, two to the US, and one to India. Never before has a Chinese leader been so active on the world state.

But it is not only the fact that he has travelled so much, but also what he has said during these trips that is particularly worthy of note. During this globetrotting he has articulated a vision of China in which the world is seen in concentric circles around it, according to the relative rank of importance of these countries or territories to China politically and economically. The US of course ranks in the top tier, and is accorded the moniker by Xi of ‘a new type of great power relations’ (新型大国关系)[10] status. Russia is also, on some accounts, accorded ‘great power’ ranking, though in a very different way than the US.  Below this is the EU (Civilisational partners),[11] and then beyond it places like the Middle East (key for China’s energy needs)[12], Africa (increasingly important for investments and new markets), Latin America and Australia (resources).

This is the world according to Xi, as far as it can be divined from his words abroad. In this Xi ranking, China’s own region occupies a highly distinctive place. Relations with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia (interestingly, only one of these, South Korea, had he visited to as of November 2015), all contesting parties for some parts of the South and East China seas territory, have, because of their disputed maritime borders, a unique and intimate impact on China’s view of itself and its role in the world. They are foreign countries. Yet their disputes with China concern territories that the People’s Republic considers part of its own territory, and which for this reason figure within its domestic policy framework, not in the Chinese international realm. About these, therefore, it uses the strident language of `non-interference in internal affairs’ and `non intervention,’ making it hard sometimes even to discuss these issues, let alone move towards resolving them.

In a far more visceral sense than the US with its constant perceived interference in terms of hard power and political dominance, or the Europeans with their irritating claims  (to the Chinese Party State at least) to universalist values and ideological influence over a China increasingly keen to assert cultural and intellectual autonomy, Japan and its other regional partners directly erode and invade China’s sense of its own sovereignty by denying the historic primacy of its claims and the sense of an ancient Chinese civilisational hegemony encoded in them. The infamous nine-dash line by which China in recent years has marked the general area it claims therefore marks not only an asserted (albeit vague) territorial border, but also a deeply emotional one. This ambiguity, or duality, is part of the reason why an issue like the South China Sea does not sit easily with any single decision making body within China, nor has it proved easy about which to make flexible policy. It touches raw emotions, and relates profoundly to the sense of who the Chinese are and how they see their new role in the world as a reborn and resurrected nation.  Even the Party State deals with these issues at its peril.

This does however offer the Xi Jinping style of leadership capital it can exploit. Xi has differentiated himself at least from his immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, by showing a willingness to speak to Chinese desires for status and strength in the new era, and to appeal directly to the government’s mission to right the historic injustices done to it. While Hu did refer to this ‘historic mission’ of the Party, under Xi the construction of permanent structures in the South China Sea area equates to real action, showing the Chinese people that he is willing to do something rather than just speak, to show that China is serious over its claims and will not give up on them. While never descending to crude nationalistic rhetoric, it is not surprising that Xi’s general approach has received a wide band of public support, and has, in some constituencies at least, aroused deep nationalist fervour, a fervour that the government has shown great ambiguity about controlling. In an era of falling GDP growth and tough domestic politics, this offers a new source of legitimacy for the Communist Party, and one from which it is not able to easily walk away.

All at Sea: Xi and the South China Sea

The role of the Party in this policy-making environment therefore is to supply a framework within which others can then negotiate, settle and agitate for specifics – the sort of specifics articulated by the MFA statements above. The Party, therefore, as it speaks through its ultimate elite mouthpiece, Xi, sets out commitments to the rhetoric of peaceful rise, the observance of consensus, limited commitment to negotiation, but utter commitment to observing China’s sovereignty, ensuring it never suffers humiliation again, and guarding its dignity. These abstract principles are the ones on which a body like the MFA can build specific responses.

We can look at this in practice.  A report of Xi Jinping speaking at one of the occasional study days of the Politburo (these have been a regular feature of Chinese political life at least since the time of his predecessor, Hu Jintao) in October 2013, a few months after he had become president, had him making the following points:

  • That China wants to resolve its maritime territorial disputes peacefully and through talks but will not compromise on sovereignty and has to step up its defensive capabilities.
  • That it adheres to the path of peaceful development, but “in no way will the country abandon its legitimate rights and interests, nor will it give up its core national interests.”
  • That it will “use peaceful means and negotiations to settle disputes and strive to safeguard peace and stability.”  On this, Xi stated that, “China will prepare to cope with complexities, enhance its capacity in safeguarding maritime rights and interests, and resolutely safeguard its maritime rights and interests.”

In addition to these strategic points, he also made clear that China had the ambition of becoming a maritime power. He categorised this as an “important task” for China as “the oceans and seas have an increasingly important strategic status concerning global competition in the spheres of politics, economic development, military, and scientific and technology.” He also emphasized the “sustainable exploitation of marine resources,” saying that “exploitation and protection, as well as pollution control and ecological remediation, should all be taken into account”[13]

There are two mainstream policy issues that Xi refers to more sharply in his discourse than his predecessor Hu did, and these have been reflected in MFA statements that frame the South China Sea issue since.  The first is the general notion that China is a power with important maritime interests, simply because for Xi these are linked to the preservation of China’s economic interests and its security. For scholars like Robert Ross, who have argued powerfully for the ways in which China has historically tended to act as a land based and land focussed power, this is an important change, and builds on intimations made through the 1980s by the then architect of China’s modernising navy, Liu Huaqing, that it needed ‘deepwater’ capacity. This high-level ‘repositioning’ of China’s macro-foreign policy of course has a trickle down effect, which helps to locate Chinese foreign policy thinking across the various interested parties, and helps various interested parties to locate Chinese foreign policy thinking in order to justify their viewpoints and positions.[14]

The second theme that can be picked out from Xi’s statement is that of environmentalism. As scholar Bill Hayton pointed out in his study of the South China Sea arguments, environmentalism has always figured as the soft side of how to manage the multi-country dispute. This contributed to the idea of a ‘Peace Park,’ put forward by some officials and academics from countries involved in the 1990s, describing a vast marine biology zone in the maritime territory that would not be owned by any one country but placed under multi-sovereign stewardship.[15] Xi himself has sat within a government that has used environmental concern as a means of arousing popular domestic support, but also for garnering plaudits from the international community – witness the major accords Xi signed with the US during the Asia Pacific Economic Meeting (APEC) in November 2014, and then during his state visit to the United States in September 2015.  Giving an environmentalist angle to China’s interests in the South China Seas at least lessens the harsh tone of its hard power interests by dressing them up in softer language.

It is not surprising therefore that this concern seeps through to the statements of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Its spokesperson, Hong Lei, for instance, in a statement on the 27th April 2015 stated that, “China’s construction on islands and reefs of Nansha is mainly for civilian purposes, which will be conducive to safeguarding the safety of navigation,  [and] protecting the ecological environment” (emphasis added).[16] A similar statement was made in the same year when Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, stated that the main purpose of the installations being built in the disputed territories was “to provide services to ships of China, neighboring countries and other countries that sail across the South China Sea. Such services will include shelter for ships, navigation aid, search and rescue, marine meteorological observation, fishery service and many others. Emphasis will also be put on marine environment protection.”[17]

The Origin of Origins: Where Do Xi’s Statements Come From?

If we accept that MFA statements on an issue like the claims over the South China Sea are partly responses, partly developments and partly articulations of ideas derived from the statements of the most senior leader of the Party State, Xi, then we have to ask from where Xi’s ideas come. There must be ways, for instance, that foreign policy thinkers and players get to feed into his thinking and to ‘populate’ his rhetoric. Are we looking at a more symbiotic, dialogic relationship? Is it something much more complex than simply a top-down delivery of edicts and then their implementation and restatement in more detail by the messenger, the MFA?

The evidence does point to Xi operating within a complex network of decision-making players and advisors, not just in this area, but across the whole of domestic and international policy. The Leading Small Group on Foreign Affairs figures here, being the ultimate Party Government body dealing with foreign affairs and of which Xi is the chair, but so too do the leading groups on the Economy and the National Security Commission, which in some ways is now the most prominent body of all. Leading Small Groups (领导小组) have been a feature of CPC organization since 1956. Even so, their role has evolved. They appeared to hold high status in the Hu era during the period when consensus was the key buzzword and Hu was simply presented as ‘first among equals.’

Whether Xi uses them to truly canvas ideas and perform party governance is hard to say.  But the formulation and then delivery of the major Xi-associated initiative in the foreign policy space ‘One Belt, One Road’ since 2014 is a good example of how things might work. It did not seem to arise from any discussions within the Leading Small Group networks, but rather it came from an informal circle of advisors that Xi has around him.[18] This deployment of ‘guerrilla’ policy making tactics, using informal groups to come up with ideas and then to unleash them onto a bureaucracy that is too sclerotic and large to display any creativity on its own, is, at least for a leader in China like Xi, Maoist in origin (recall Mao’s usurpation of the formal means of Party and state governance during the Cultural Revolution from 1966).

Through this way of creating policy, the Xi leadership has proved adept at outlining highly abstract formulations into which other players can then speak. Whether from the Politburo, one of the Small Leading Groups, or the informal network of advice serving an elite leader like Xi, these methods are all built on an acknowledgement of the unique function and role of the Party in contemporary China. However it devises policy, it maintains a privileged position in society, controlling a specific territory where it outlines the overriding general political objectives, like the two centennial goals that Xi has in particular spoken about since 2013 – delivering a middle income society by 2021 to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the Communist Party, and then, in 2049, achieving what he calls the perfecting of modernity and Chinese-style democracy. Within these highly general frameworks, executive entities like the State Council and the separate ministries enter as those tasked with implementation, defining ways and means within their areas of responsibility to get the high level and often very abstract goals delivered. These are eventually articulated through documents like the Five Year Plans/Programmes that lay out economic objectives and macro-economic strategies at the central and then provincial levels.

Separate Players and their Role in Influencing Party Policy

Within this framework, there are a number of contesting parties that we can now investigate. These were outlined by Jacobson and Knox in their 2010 SIPRI paper that was previously referenced.[19] In this paper, they outline three ‘official’ foreign policy actors: The Communist Party, the State Council and the People’s Liberation Army. They then discuss more marginal but still very important stakeholders who have the ability to influence the Party as it tries to formulate its holistic policy. These are the business sector, local governments, research institutions and academia, and media and netizens (citizens using the net). Focussing in particular on their viewpoints and evidence for their influence and involvement in South China Sea policy, we will deal with each in turn.

People’s Liberation Army (PLA)

In this area, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a fundamental actor.  But this has to be viewed in the context that properly understands that the PLA is as much a servant of the Party as is the MFA, perhaps even more so, and remains answerable to the Party, just as it was on its foundation in the 1920s as the Red Army.[20]  Its fundamental task during the era of Reform and Opening Up since the late 1970s has been to assist the Party and government in creating a strong, prospering, secure China, and one therefore with a powerful economy.

Over the last decade, the Chinese Ministry of Defence has issued White Papers outlining its holistic vision for the role of the PLA in China, and the ways it relates to the Party and government. The latest, in 2015, states simply that: “Building a strong national defense and powerful armed forces is a strategic task of China’s modernization drive and a security guarantee for China’s peaceful development.” To this end, the PLA focuses on the following core priorities:

  • Building a strong military
  • Implementing the military strategic guideline of active defense
  • Accelerating the modernization of national defense and armed forces,
  • Resolutely safeguarding China’s sovereignty, security and development interests
  • Providing a strong guarantee for achieving the national strategic goal of the “two centenaries”
  • Realizing the Chinese dream of achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation[21]

Specifically on the South China Sea issue, the White Paper states:

“On the issues concerning China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, some of its offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied. Some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China. It is thus a long-standing task for China to safeguard its maritime rights and interests.”[22]

For all the talk of the PLA being bellicose, sabre rattling and itching to promote its new prowess and gain some combat experience, it is often forgotten just how much it is a creature of the politicians. The PLA has never defied the Party in the way that the USSR Red Army turned against the Communist Party in the 1980s, and then played a role in bringing down its leadership and putting a new government in power in 1991. The recent anti-corruption struggle has lapped at the doors of the PLA, ensuring it is even more disciplined and politically circumscribed. And while there are a few vociferous PLA officials stating that China needs to be pushier and tougher with its neighbours, and that the PLA might be able to articulate an area of policy unilaterally or even take a lead, these claims are highly speculative. There is simply no hard evidence that this is the case nor any real indication it might become so.

As proof of this, one only has to look at the case of Rear Admiral Yang Yi, writing in the government owned ‘Global Times’ Chinese newspaper in October 2015, where he warned that China would deliver a ‘head-on blow” to any foreign forces “violating” China’s sovereignty. He went on to state that, “Safeguarding maritime rights calls for force and power.”[23] Despite this, when the U.S. destroyer did sail through the disputed waters, there were no immediate Chinese military response. In the words of Australian journalist John Garnaut, “when the United States tested this thesis … by sailing a guided missile destroyer close to one of those islands, China barely raised a murmur.”[24]

It is hard to think that Xi Jinping and his colleagues therefore are structuring the framework of their policy around the South China Sea on considerations about placating the PLA. This is not to claim that the PLA does not figure in their thinking, but it is only one of a number of voices, and has a tightly circumscribed space. Elite Party officials under Xi do not hope that tensions in the South China Sea are ratcheted up in order to satisfy the generals, nor have there been signs at least since 2012 that local military leaders are able to make decisions about action on their own (the most visible case of this possibly happening was that of Hu Jintao appearing to be blind sighted during a visit by a U.S. Secretary of Defence who brought up the testing of a new stealth jet in January 2011).  The PLA conceptualises its work in ways that mean it is hard to imagine it ideologically, militarily, or politically having sufficient policy autonomy, or a narrative of it own power that would set it against the Party. It is part of the Party, within the Party, and gains its raison d’être from the Party. That has not changed, and is unlikely to do so.

Media and Netizens

When pressure is put on Party elite leaders, who then restructure the tone and parameters of statements on issues like the South China Sea, it comes in a highly complex way from the public. The ways in which this happens are ill understood. Part of this is because, through lack of detailed investigations or real in-depth understanding of how the Communist Party surveys and makes use of the opinions of the people, it is hard to assess what real role the views of the public play. Basically, for all the claims made about Chinese being satisfied or dissatisfied through vehicles like the Pew Research Institute’s annual register, no one really knows what the public’s views are. There are no national elections, and no ways to empirically test the public mood on issues like government performance and satisfaction with Party policy on specific issues.

The one thing that is clear is that for Xi Jinping, appealing to nationalist sentiment and the trope of the Party being the defender of the vision of a strong, rich China has become an increasingly powerful potential driver of policy.  Nationalism as it appeared in the writings of prominent bloggers like Wang Xiaodong and others in an infamous collection named ‘Unhappy China’ from 2009 asserts that China has been too compliant and weak with its claims over its border issues, and that the government needs to do more to protect those claims. They focus in particular on the Japanese due to their refusal to deal with their historic crimes, and the United States, because of its perceived strategy of containment and the ways in which it inhibits or curtails China’s strategic space, a space these bloggers feel is legitimately theirs.[25]

There is plenty of evidence that this nationalistic sentiment figures at least in Chinese cyberspace. But it is less clear how much impact it really has on Party and government thinking, and in which ways it is evidence of manipulation, or of being manipulated. In an era of falling GDP growth, with many tough domestic decisions, Chinese leaders are indeed searching for a new pillar of legitimacy. Since 1978, the core source has been economic growth. But now, the message is more complicated. And inspiring people through nationalist messages to line up and support the Party State as it asserts the country’s rights in what is viewed as its own backyard against those who are seen as its enemies or detractors is good populist politics. The only issue is one of control – is the Party truly still in charge of the message? And if so, what sorts of tactical compromise does it have to make to ensure that it is indeed regarded as a worthy custodian of nationalist public interests over the disputed islands?

The sail through of a U.S. destroyer in October 2015 referred to above once more offers interesting insights. Just as the loud declarations of military intent and anger by PLA officials before this event did not result in any real response, so too there is no sign of discontent in the sphere of public opinion. On the whole, the appeal to issues like the South China Sea, even if it does have widespread soft support from the public, is nowhere near as central to their interests as issues like the quality of their living environment, the rising living costs and the pressure this puts on their budgets. These are topics that have a direct impact on their daily lives that they can see. The attention that the Party gives these issues in its internal major announcements evidences their importance. The 2013 Plenum (the Communist Party Central Committee annual high level policy meeting), for instance, was solely on economic reform, with no real space left for territorial issues and their management. In 2014, the Plenum was on legal reform, and in 2015 on the preparation for the 13th Five Year Programme. Seen against these policy announcements, the South China Sea is indeed not a core interest, but a peripheral issue. And for all the noise of some figures in Chinese cyberspace and media, in the end there is no clear evidence that this plays much of a role in formulating policy.


There may be ways in which other stakeholders, as outlined by Knox and Jakobson, have a much more influential role with the Party. Business might be one of them. Business after all plays a big role in getting elite leaders the sort of support and networks to deliver results like GDP growth, and to further their careers. Of course, businesses do have some interest in the outcome of the South China Sea issue. But as Hayton showed, the exploitable resources there are not perhaps as plentiful, nor as lucrative, as might be thought. State-owned energy companies like Petro China and the Chinese National Overseas Oil Corporation (CNOOC) have presidents or Chief Executive Officers that sit on the Central Committee of the Communist Party (though none are currently in the Politburo). For figures within the Standing Committee like the current Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, their careers started as Party operatives in the major state companies.

State enterprises, through the generation of profit and wealth, are important for the Party. They account for half of the central government’s revenue, so it is not surprising that the Party jealously guards them. As American scholar Yasheng Huang stated in his work on the privileges granted to State companies, they occupy the top position in the political pecking order, are given preferential access to loans and capital and have their factors of production like land costs, utilities, and even labour, subsidized.[27] They do have influence over some foreign policy issues, such as the formulation of rules of outward investment, and to some extent they operate as a disparate lobbying group. But on the South China Sea, the opportunities are too speculative and unclear for them to figure explicitly. Their greatest interest in this area is to maintain secure and stable supply routes. They therefore would be more a source of restraint than of agitation, since it is not in their interest to cause unrest or disruption in this region.

Local Government

Local governments do play a major role in Chinese politics. When analyst Bo Zhiyue looked at the records of the members of the Central Committee from 2007 to 2012, he found that the largest single group were those designated as provincial leaders – either serving as Party Secretaries or Governors of provinces or autonomous regions across China.[28] The final composition of the 2012 Standing Committee of the Politburo testifies to this. Of its seven members, six had some experience, five of them very extensive, at provincial levels of government. Xi Jinping is an example. From 1983 to 2007, he worked outside of central government in Beijing, mostly in the southern Fujian province, and then in Zhejiang and finally Shanghai.

There are some provinces that do have major interests in the South China Sea. Hainan, the island just sound of mainland China, is surrounded by the contested territories, and hosts some of the military assets that are active in the maritime area. Fujian and Guangdong too have large coasts that face the disputed territories. The Party Secretary of Guangdong does sit on the current 18th Party Congress full Politburo, along with the provincial leaders of Xinjiang, Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing. Despite this, the role of local government in formulating foreign policy is also circumscribed. Their autonomy might exercised through encouraging investment policies, for instance, but that would imply, as with business, that they are a voice for moderation and stability. There is no evidence that any provincial leader plays a particularly strong role in South China Sea policy.


Academic, public intellectuals and think tank personnel do have influence through formulating new concepts and ideas that catch the eye of the central leadership. Beijing University’s Wang Jisi, for instance, pioneered the idea of China looking to its western land regions to develop a common economic prosperity zone in the 2000s, and this has had some impact on the construction of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative.

Organisations like the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, and the Chinese Institute for Strategic Studies all have personnel that specialise in the South China Sea issue. There is even a specialist entity, the National Institute for South China Seas Studies, based on Hainan Island in Haikou. The role of think tanks in China, however, because of their source of funding (government) and the links they have with the Party means that they do not operate as fully independent, contrarian entities, and their material is mostly supportive of the government policies as they are articulated by central leaders and the MFA. There have been few expressions, for instance, of outright relinquishment of territorial claims in China, apart from statements by dissident or marginalised figures. Academia does play a role in explaining policy to foreign interlocutors, and in working as an army of diplomacy.

There are distinctive voices of figures like Qinghua University’s Yan Xuetong or Shen Dingli of Fudan University in Shanghai that agitate for a more assertive, authentically China-centred policy. This of course has an impact on the government’s position on the South and East China Sea, because it makes this one of the signature issues, and a frontline in proving the confidence and prowess of China in its foreign policy and ability to face down players like the United States or Japan. Academics and commentators do have indirect influence on specific political leaders in China,  sometimes even offering policy briefings and advice up to the Politburo, and often being asked to produce ideas and recommendations to policy makers.  They therefore have some voice in foreign policy formulation.

Conclusion: The Party’s Role in this Area

In the China of Xi Jinping, the South China Sea issue has been energised by a leadership highly aware of the new resources for legitimacy that nationalism and national pride gives them, especially in an era of falling GDP growth and the transition to a new, more complex foundation for Party rule and appeal to the Chinese public. Defence of sovereignty and the restoration of national dignity are extremely important for Chinese people. This is most evident from media, the Internet and public surveys have been conducted.

In this context, the South China Sea has huge symbolic importance, because it shows how foreign policy in an area that evidently matters deeply to the current leadership is formulated. There are, of course, a large number of stakeholders. But the consistency of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ messages aimed at the outside world indicates a high level of management. This control can be sourced ultimately back to the Party, and to the leadership nexus of the current Party, in the world of influencers and policy formulators around Xi Jingping. The centralisation and co-ordination of messaging on this issue is something that has intensified under Xi, and has become a hallmark of his time in power since 2012. But his statements on the South China Sea issue are typified by a high level of generality, and by staking out a largely high-level, abstract territory he gives other actors like the PLA, State Owned Enterprises, and local governments space to define their own key interests.

The least clear part of this process of upward and downward formulation and what can be called ‘organic consultation’ is the impact of public opinion. Public opinion is evidently important, and it is clear that Xi, for instance, speaks about the South China Sea as an issue that matters to the public and in which the Party state needs to demonstrate its concern and engagement. Even so, there is a constant ambiguity between where the Party is creating the perception of public concern about something so it can act for its own interests, and where it is in fact really reacting to public concerns and shaping policy. It is clear that defence of national dignity and status, and appeals to the public’s emotions of now being a strong, rich country, are important resources for the Xi leadership. But so far the South China Sea issue has shown that for all the rhetoric, the activities that the government is willing to endorse in order to prove it can actually do something to assert China’s claims are limited – construction of structures on islands, for instance. The interesting question is whether the Party State believes public appetite for action is increasing, pushing it to take even more emphatic measures, or whether in fact, this is a case of the Chinese state playing games with itself, where the outside world, despite feeling it is intimately involved, is only a spectator.

JPR Status: Working Paper. Peer reviewed 3/3. Archived Feb. 10, 2016.

Dr. Kerry Brown is Director of the Lau China Institute and Professor of Chinese Studies at King’s College, London. Previously he was Professor of Chinese Politics and Director of the China Studies Centre, University of Sydney. He is an Associate Fellow of Chatham House, London.  He was previously Head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, London and a member of the British Diplomatic Service from 1998 to 2005, serving as First Secretary, British Embassy Beijing 2000-2003. Educated at the universities of Cambridge (MA) and Leeds (PhD), he is the author ten books on China, the latest of which are The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China (I. B. Tauris, 2014), and What’s Wrong with Diplomacy (e-penguin, 2015). His study, Xi Jinping: China’s CEO will appear in early 2016.


[1] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China 2015, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on June 4, 2015, viewed 10 October 2015,

[2]Hong Lei, Regular Press Conference on April 17, 2015, viewed 10 October 2015,

[3] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China 2015, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson HuaChunying’s Remarks on the Conclusion of the Hearing on Issues Relating to Jurisdiction and Admissibility by the South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal Established at the Request of the Philippines, viewed 10 October 2015,

[4] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China 2015, Assistant Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang Expounds on China’s Stand on South China Sea, Cyber Security and Other Issues, viewed 10 October 2015,

[5] Ibid

[6] The Chinese government has produced no specific White Paper from the State Council on the South China Sea issue. But it has produced a position paper in late 2014 on the Philippine moves to seek arbitration. See Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Position Paper of the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Matter of Jurisdiction in the South China Sea Arbitration Initiated by the Republic of the Philippines’, at

[7] Linda Jakobson and Dean Knox, ‘New Foreign Policy Actors in China,’ Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Policy Paper No 26, Stockholm, 2010

[8] Zheng Bijian, ‘China’s Peaceful Rise to Great Power Status’, Foreign Affairs 84 (5), September/October 2005, pp 9 ff

[9]  首轮中美经济对话:除上月球外主要问题均已谈及,, report, 29th July 2009, which quotes Dai Bingguo as saying: 中国的核心利益第一是维护基本制度和国家安全,其次是国家主权和领土完整,第三是经济社会的持续稳定发展. See This has been translated as ‘China’s number one core interest is to maintain its fundamental system and state security; next is state sovereignty and territorial integrity; and third is the continued stable development of the economy and society.’ See  Dai Bingguo, ‘The Core Interests of the People’s Republic of China’, China Digital Times, 7th August 2009, at

[10]  习近平访美将深化新型大国关系内涵, People’s Daily Online,

[11] Xi Jinping, ‘EU China High-Level People to People Dialogue: Speech of President Xi Jinping, Bruges, Belgium, 1st April, 2014, at, accessed 1st November 2015

[12] See Kerry Brown, ‘Mixed Signals: China in the Middle East’, in Kristina Kausch (editor), ‘Geopolitics and Destiny in the Middle East’,  Fride, Madrin, 2015

[13] China Daily 2013, ‘No compromise on sovereignty, says Xi’. Sina English, 1 March, viewed 11 October,

[14]  See Robert S Ross, ‘Chinese Security Policy: Structure, Power and Politics’, Routledge, London, 2009,

[15] Bill Hayton, ‘The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia’, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2014, pp 210-215

[16] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China 2015, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei’s Regular Press Conference on April 27, 2015, viewed 10 October 2015,

[17] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China 2015, Building-up of China’s capabilities in the South China Sea serves the security, stability and freedom of navigation, viewed 10 October 2015,

[18] Kerry Brown, ‘China’s CEO: Xi Jinping’, I BTauris, London and New York, Forthcoming. See also  Cheng Li, ‘Xi Jinping’s Inner Circle: Part One (The Shaanxi Gang),  Hoover Institute, Stanford, 2014 at and ‘Xi Jinping’s Inner Cirle: Part Two (The Friends From Xi’s Formative Years’,

[19] Linda Jakobson has subsequently written an excellent, comprehensive overview of the different actors in the South China Sea issue, ‘China’s Unpredictable Maritime Actors’, issued by the Lowy Institute, November 2014, available at The contents of this report also inform this chapter.

[20] For a good history of the PLA, see Li Xiaobing, ‘A History of the Modern Chinese Army’, University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, 2009.

[21] The State Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, ‘China’s Military Strategy’, May 2015, Beijing, available at

[22] Ibid,

[23] Charles Clover, Beijing Warns US against Maritime Challenge in South China Sea,’ Financial Times, 15th October 2015, at

[24] John Garnaut, ‘China’s Great Wall of Sand is Theatrical Bluster,’ Melbourne Age, 29th October 2015, at

[25] See [25] Wang Xiaodong, Song Shaojun, Huang Jilao and Song Qiang (eds), ‘Zhongguo Bu Gaoxing’ (China is Not Happy), Phoenix Publishing, Jiangsu People’s Publishing Company, 2009.

[26] See the case of Zhang Gaoli, as outlined by Kerry Brown, ‘The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China’, I B Tauris, London and New York, 2014, pp 164-169

[27] Yasheng Huang, ‘Selling China: Foreign Direct Investment During the Reform Era’, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2002

[28] Zhiyue Bo, ‘China’s Elite Politics: Governance and Democratization’, World Scientific, Singapore, 2007