As US culls diplomats, China is empowering its ambassadors

Chinese President Xi Jinping (above) elevated  State Councilor Yang Jiechi to China's powerful 25-member Politburo in October.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (above) elevated State Councilor Yang Jiechi to China's powerful 25-member Politburo in October.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG)- While US diplomats endure staff cuts and low morale, China's own foreign service is undergoing a revival.

The ruling Communist Party has ordered a sweeping overhaul of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs aimed at making China a more effective global player, according to four people familiar with the matter.

The plan calls for most agencies to stop replacing staff in Chinese embassies by next year, giving ambassadors direct control over their portfolios, said two of the people, who requested anonymity because they're not authorised to speak to media.

The overhaul promises to create a more empowered diplomatic corps better able to represent China's interests with one voice as they oversee more than a dozen trade deals, supervise infrastructure projects and manage loans to foreign countries.

The Foreign Ministry will wield a veto over financial and personnel decisions at embassies, the four people said.

The shake-up comes as President Xi Jinping casts aside the party's decades-old strategy to "hide" its strength and "bide" its time, exerting his country's clout overseas with a US$500 billion trade-and-infrastructure investment plan.

It poses a direct challenge to the US State Department, which has been racked by departures, unfilled vacancies and internal push-back as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson implements a private-sector-style "redesign" to reduce what he says is bureaucratic overlap.

China's overhaul got rolling in January last year, when a reform committee that Xi heads urged the foreign ministry to "bolster unified coordination" and "forge a politically resolute, professionally exquisite, strictly disciplined foreign affairs corps."

He also elevated the country's top diplomat, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, to China's powerful 25-member Politburo in October - the first ex-Foreign Ministry official reach that level in two decades.

"As China becomes more of a serious international player, it wants to prevent the risks of some employee or official from some government agency provoking some kind of international problem, anything from going out and getting drunk and behaving badly to representing Chinese foreign policy in a freelancing way," Susan Shirk, a former deputy assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, said, referring to changes announced over the past year.

"I can imagine these changes would be really good for the morale for the Chinese diplomats at the foreign ministry at a time when the morale of the diplomats in the US foreign service is at an all time low," said Shirk, who now heads the 21st Century China Centre at the University of California, San Diego.

The Commerce and Foreign ministries in Beijing didn't respond to faxed requests for comment this week.

The interests of Chinese diplomats have been traditionally focused on things like attracting trade and investment or keeping Western nations from meddling in China's human rights practices or other perceived internal affairs. They have long shared duties with ministries that oversee commerce, customs, security, science, education and culture.

In 2009, for example, the ministry's personnel director said the agency employed about half of the country's 5,000 diplomats. In Africa, the Ministry of Commerce controls the distribution of much of China's foreign aid. By contrast, the US government lets the State Department and the US Agency for International Development the supervise the money.

"Different embassy departments have operated under different ministries," Gao Zhikai, a former Beijing-based diplomat who served as Deng's translator in the 1980s. "Not only do they not talk to each other, their focus is also completely different."

Empowering the Foreign Ministry could weaken the very agencies such as the Commerce Ministry that have helped China establish interests around the globe, but the government has decided that it's worth the risk.

Chinese leaders believe the country needs a more consolidated diplomatic structure after Xi told party cadres in October China was "approaching the centre of the world stage," one of the people said, citing internal instructions.

Broad policy decisions would still be made in Beijing, such as any Commerce Ministry response to Trump administration trade actions.

Still, that represents a shift for China, which had sought to keep a low-profile after the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping began courting overseas investment 40 years ago. Xi, who took power in 2012, has led China on a more outward course, defending globalisation in Davos, taking a leading role in climate talks and launching his Belt and Road Initiative to build roads, railways, ports and pipelines across the Eurasian landmass and beyond.

Before starting his second term in October, Xi outlined a vision to complete China's rise as a global power by 2050, including a "world-class" military. Making sure that doesn't lead to conflict with established powers such as the US requires diplomacy.

The overhaul will spare some non-Foreign Ministry embassy staff, the four people said. The central bank, the People's Bank of China, will still send representatives abroad, one of them said. The People's Liberation Army will also retain close control of their envoys, the second person said.

While it's difficult to compare the size of Chinese and US diplomatic activities - given the sparse budget information from China and differing accounting practices - it's clear the two are headed in opposite directions. China budgeted 54 billion yuan (US$8.5 billion) for foreign affairs last year, almost double from 2013.

The White House, meanwhile, requested US$27.1 billion for international programmes, almost 30 per cent lower than 2016.

Gao, the former diplomat, said China needed an empowered foreign service as its diplomatic, commercial and security issues "become inseparable."

"In the past, China's influence was weak and its voice was not valued internationally," Gao said. As its strength grows, "the Chinese embassies and consulates will become more significant and will become the representatives of China's political and diplomatic influence," he said.