Webinar on “Outlook for China’s Foreign Policy and Decision-Making in Xi Jinping’s China after the 20th Party Congress”

In this webinar, Prof Suisheng Zhao discussed how Xi Jinping’s third term as the Chinese Communist Party’s General Secretary is expected to have an impact on China’s external relations globally and in Southeast Asia through its foreign policy and decision-making.


Tuesday, 25 October 2022 – The recently-concluded 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) saw President Xi Jinping securing a third term in office and installing loyalists to the Politburo and its Standing Committee. To analyse how such developments will affect Beijing’s foreign policy-making in the coming years, the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted Professor Suisheng Zhao to discuss the “Outlook for China’s Foreign Policy and Decision-Making in Xi Jinping’s China after the 20th Party Congress”. Professor Zhao is a Professor and Director of the Center for China-US Cooperation at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

Speaker Prof Suisheng Zhao (right) with moderator Ms Lee Sue-Ann. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Professor Zhao highlighted how the 20th Party Congress has entrenched the concentration of power around President Xi. While the composition of previous Politburos and Standing Committees was designed in a way to offer some balance among the political factions in China, Professor Zhao described the new line-up as the “most extreme possible list of ‘All Xi’s Men’”, enabling Xi to become a “supreme leader without a rival”. Moreover, the elevation of Shanghai party secretary Li Qiang—a Xi loyalist who presided over the chaotic Covid-19 lockdowns of Shanghai—into the No. 2 spot in the Standing Committee (positioning him as China’s next premier come March 2023) suggests that the new line-up was more about prioritising personal loyalty to Xi and ideology over professionalism and meritocracy. Tellingly, the fact that there was no Standing Committee member below the age of 60 indicates that no clear successor to Xi has been identified and that Xi was planning to stay in power for at least the next ten years. Professor Zhao noted that Xi was 54 years old when he was elevated to the Standing Committee.

Professor Zhao laid out the complex bureaucracy that undergirds China’s foreign and national security policy-making, which includes the CCP’s Central Committee, the Politburo and the Standing Committee as the top-most layer. Beneath this layer are the “policy coordination and elaboration organizations”, whose function is to build policy consensus around foreign affairs and national security issues behind the scenes. The third layer consists of line departments in the state, party and military apparatus.

Professor Zhao noted that China’s paramount leaders have often restructured the foreign policy-making apparatus to advance their respective agendas. For instance, while Mao Zedong adopted a top-down leadership structure, he delegated primary responsibility for foreign affairs to Zhou Enlai. Meanwhile, Deng Xiaoping pursued an approach of delegation by consensus, but would intervene and ratify certain decisions if necessary. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao practised collective leadership. Professor Zhao added that, during Jiang’s and Hu’s tenures, China’s foreign policy-making apparatus had become increasingly professionalized. However, under Xi, decision-making has become once again centralized under a supreme leader.

Xi was able to consolidate and concentrate power through a variety of means, including restructuring key decision-making bodies in China and introducing new rules of interaction among China’s senior officials. For instance, Xi reduced the size of the Standing Committee while centralizing policy-making authority in the party centre, which he occupies. He has also instituted rules which have the effect of incentivizing officials to pledge their personal loyalty to him. For instance, he changed the procedures for the annual work reports; now, China’s top leaders are required to write and submit their individual reports to Xi personally.

Xi has centralized power over China’s foreign policy by imposing a “top-level design” over the foreign-policy apparatus. This includes reconstituting the “central coordination organizations”, or the “leading small groups” (LSGs), that were meant to bypass the different decision-making layers and cut through bureaucratic roadblocks. Professor Zhao discussed three important LSGs: the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALSG), the National Security Leading Small Group (NSLSG), and the Protecting Marine Rights and Interests Leading Small Group (PMRILSG). The FASLG is generally regarded as the standing coordinating body for foreign policy in China, and its policy recommendations are taken to represent the shared consensus of China’s internal stakeholders. The NSLSG was created in 2000 in the aftermath of NATO’s bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and is tasked with crisis management. The PMRILSG was another recent creation under Hu Jintao when China was embroiled in increasing tensions over the East and South China Seas. However, these bodies were reliant on the Central Foreign Affairs Office for staffing and resources.

Xi has thus restructured these SLGs to bolster their capacities. The State Security Commission (SSC) has absorbed the responsibilities of the NSLSG. The SSC is meant to adopt a “holistic national security outlook”, which means paying attention to both domestic and external security threats. The functions of the FASLG have also been absorbed by the newly-created Central Foreign Affairs Commission, which denotes the increasing importance of the LSGs in Xi’s regime: by endowing the “small group” mechanism with the “more formal” designation of a commission, this would invest the body with more authority to carry out its coordinating functions. Moreover, Xi has also held more Central Foreign Affairs work conferences than his predecessors, having already convened two of them over his tenure.

Professor Zhao also discussed how the line agencies in the state, party and military foreign policy apparatus have been revamped under Xi. Recounting the history of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Professor Zhao noted that the foreign ministry enjoyed significant political prestige in its early years, with top officials often drawn from the Chinese military. This changed during the 1980s when the ranks of the foreign ministry became increasingly staffed by career professionals. The increasing specialization and professionalization of the Chinese MFA however led to what Professor Zhao described as the “paradoxical” decline of the ministry’s political stature. However, Xi has reversed this decline, as signalled by the inclusion of Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi—respectively the former and incumbent foreign affairs minister—in the Politburo and the State Council. Professor Zhao stated that the renewed political importance of the Chinese MFA generally aligns with Xi’s consolidation over China’s foreign policy decision-making, with officials now incentivised to act in ways that demonstrate their personal loyalty to Xi. This has also contributed to the rise of “wolf warrior” diplomacy.

Xi has also expanded the mandate of the CCP’s party-level diplomacy and made it more visible. To distinguish itself from the MFA, the party’s role in foreign policy is oriented more towards the “long-term”, including promoting China’s reputation and its narratives. Xi has also re-asserted his personal authority over the military by purging senior military officials and handpicking certain members to the Central Military Commission, which has enhanced his control over the conduct of China’s military diplomacy.

According to Professor Zhao, Xi has managed to sustain his consolidation of power by ensuring ideological conformity to his nationalistic appeals about the China Dream. In doing so, Xi has restructured the incentives facing Chinese diplomats, encouraging them to be more hawkish and steering the conduct of Beijing’s foreign policy away from a low-profile approach towards one befitting of a big power. Moreover, Xi has established red lines and baselines that China is prepared to draw the sword over, while also elevating security as a key policy focus. The departure from a development-first approach means that Beijing is more willing to accept the risk of economic blowback to advance its security and strategic interests. This also implies a more uncompromising stance vis-à-vis the United States and a readiness to assert Chinese interests in the regions around its periphery, such as the South China Sea and Southeast Asia. Furthermore, this could mean the end of China’s strategic patience with Taiwan as Beijing—whether prepared or otherwise—be likely to invade the island if certain red lines are crossed.

In sum, Professor Zhao saw an uncertain future for China, noting that the Hong Kong stock market recorded its largest drop since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 after the new Politburo and the Standing Committee line-ups were unveiled. Moreover, Xi’s outsized influence in foreign policy-making increases the possibility of both intended or unintended consequences, since Chinese bureaucrats and officials in the foreign affairs apparatus are now performing for an audience of one: Xi himself. Professor Zhao also warned that it would be difficult to prevent or correct Xi’s mistakes.

In the Q&A session with the 150-strong online audience, Professor Zhao also addressed various topics, including the policy dynamics of the new Politburo and the Standing Committee. He also fielded questions about Russia-China relations in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, while remarking on the scale of the challenge facing the United States in waging a confrontation on two fronts simultaneously. Professor Zhao also discussed the difficult position that Southeast Asian countries are in as a result of the major power rivalry as well as the future of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).