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Understanding Chinese policy makers

By Adam Wand - posted Tuesday, 14 June 2005

We all know the next big thing is almost certainly China: in many respects it is already there. We know of soaring economic development and booming foreign direct investment bringing ever more Chinese-made goods to our shelves. Many people, when pressed, might be able to name the Chinese President Hu Jintao or its Premier, Wen Jiabao. But when it comes to Chinese foreign policy, outside the circles of China-watchers, how widely is the international relations establishment known and understood? Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State is a household name, as is Jack Straw, her British counterpart. Even Joschka Fischer of Germany is widely known. But what of Li Zhaoxing, the Chinese Foreign Minister?

Even more so, beyond the direct control (although perhaps not influence) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its state apparatus, what do we know - as thinkers and policy-makers or as ordinary Australian’s with an interest in regional and international affairs - of the role, influence and worldviews of the more shadowy elements of the Chinese international relations hierarchy? Most specifically, what do we know about Chinese international relations think-tanks?

In Australia we can observe the ever increasing importance and influence of bodies such as the Lowy Institute for International Policy or the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. These organisations, headed and staffed by some of the best and brightest from Australian academia, diplomacy and ex-government, have an ever rising pull on official policy.


Their reports and commentary can elucidate, pressure, shape and challenge official action and public opinion. The same can be seen in the UK where, among others, Chatham House, the Foreign Policy Centre and the International Institute for Strategic Studies cumulatively form a comprehensive layer of foreign policy advice for, and influence over, national government decision-making. In the US, a proliferate multitude of both partisan and non-partisan think-tanks vie for sway in Washington, including the Council on Foreign Relations, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the American Enterprise Institute.

In light of the fact that the strategic balance in the Pacific is fast being re-struck (as evidenced by the rolling disputes between Beijing and Tokyo) and the clear reality that China is moving forward with its annual program of military spending increases together with a new assertiveness in its international policy stance, understanding the inputs into Chinese foreign policy-making has never been more crucial. This is especially the case for a state such as Australia which aspires to straddle the main regional fissures by remaining closely tied in all respects to Washington, Tokyo and Beijing.

So what of Chinese international relations think-tanks: are there any? This may seem like an unnecessary enquiry of a country as internationally important as China but, when placed in the context of the all-seeing CCP-controlled state, we could well understand a total absence. However we can identify a substantial number of such bodies and, although their number pales when compared to say the US, it is a fast growing sector. In Beijing we find the China Institute of International Studies (established back to 1956), the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, the Xinhua Centre for World Affairs Studies and the China Association for International Friendly Contact. In Shanghai, we find the Shanghai Institute for International Studies and the Centre for American Studies.

Identifying these organisations is one thing, but determining if they play a role is obviously more complex. Yet even here, we see emerging evidence that since the mid-1990s they have been playing a key role that is increasingly analogous to the influential layer we’ve identified in the west. Glasner and Saunders have recently highlighted in China Quarterly that a “more pragmatic Chinese foreign policy and a more bureaucratic policy-making process have increased the opportunities for China’s civilian research institutes to affect foreign policy”.

Whether through the distribution of reports for restricted CCP circles or via research openly published as special papers, journals and books, these bodies are increasingly making their mark. Moreover the manner in which they are approaching their task is markedly strategic: focused on the provision of comprehensive, forward-looking and solution-based answers to China’s contemporary foreign policy challenges. It is clear that Australian policy-makers and thinkers, and also Australian international relations think-tanks, must have an equally greater appreciation of how these bodies work and most importantly, how they view the world.

A comparative example to illustrate the centrality of such institutes and their increasing utility can be seen in the Sino-Indian relationship. After India’s testing of a nuclear device in the 1990s, it was the visit of a delegation of Chinese analysts from an international relations think-tank that gathered much of China’s insights on New Delhi’s intentions and threat perceptions. This “second-track” capacity proved to be a critical advantage for China’s policy-makers and stemmed from a deep interaction between certain Chinese and Indian think-tanks. Australia now needs such a capacity so that, in the Sino-Australian context - in both times of crisis and normalcy - a common understanding of non-state foreign policy advice can form a core feature of Australian interactions with China.


The development of solid collaborations between Australian think-tanks and their Chinese counterparts will stand to break down barriers to co-operation and to facilitate a thorough and mutual basis for “second-track” foreign policy dialogue that matches what is already present in the economic field.

Critical to this process is a degree of understanding of how these bodies actually see Australia. Are we a strategic partner? Are we a peripheral interest? Are we just a good source of trade in natural resources? Should our desire to be involved in East Asian summitry really be supported? The views of these bodies matter because, as outlined above, they are increasingly feeding their analysis directly into government, much as their western counterparts do. A key goal of the Australian government and Australian international relations think-tanks must therefore be to establish and deepen ties with such bodies, develop clear understandings of how they in fact do see Australia and, where necessary, through exchange or dialogue, seek to re-shape those views to our national advantage.

The intricacies of the Chinese foreign policy establishment are cloudy at best and, for this reason, along with a multitude of other internal and cross-cultural reasons, there is very little chance that Li Zhaoxing is about to burst into the international consciousness like his glamorous American counterpart. Nonetheless, China’s international policy must be understood. This in turn means stripping it down to its core inputs. One such input is Chinese international relations think-tanks. These bodies are increasingly prominent and for Australia’s own influence in China to be developed and maintained in the 21st century, a rapid understanding of their workings and worldviews must be pursued.

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About the Author

Adam Wand is a former senior political advisor. He served as a Chief of Staff in the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments from 2007-10. He is also a participant in the Australian American Young Leadership Dialogue.

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