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Who’s in Charge in China?

China is thinking long and hard about re-organizing the way foreign policymaking is structured in the government, says the FT. This comes as welcome news to those who worry about the apparent lack of coordination between different nodes of the Chinese government, especially when there are flare-ups over high-profile issues like the ongoing island territorial disputes. Western diplomats have often said they are not always sure Beijing’s responses are centrally coordinated. This lack of coordination, in turn, increases the risk that mixed signals will cause a small dispute to grow into a larger and more dangerous crisis.

But this may slowly be changing. Beijing’s new ideas seem to involve giving more power and visibility to a central coordinating figure who can orchestrate policy across bureaucratic divides. In particular, this figure would focus on making sure that China’s military, Coast Guard, and diplomats are all singing from the same songbook.

The FT profiles a few of the proposals:

One idea floated in the run-up to the party congress is for Li Keqiang, expected to succeed Wen Jiabao as premier, to take on responsibility for the South China Sea issue.

Leaders are also discussing a proposal to create a new vice-premier post in charge of foreign policy. Senior party members said Wang Huning, a 57-year-old law and international relations expert who has lived in the US, is seen as a candidate. So far, the foreign policy portfolio is not represented on the politburo, the 25-member body whose standing committee represents the pinnacle of China’s political power. A senior party member said the latest proposal would elevate foreign policy to the politburo level and “give it the weight it deserves in our current situation”.

While increased coordination might make China a more formidable adversary for its neighbors and for the U.S., it should also reduce the likelihood of unnecessary disputes and make it easier to work with China to find solutions. On the whole, it’s in everyone’s interests that Chinese foreign policy be intelligently and effectively managed. World leaders need to know that when they telephone China, the person who answers the phone has the power to get things done.

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