Chinese National Security Decision-making: Processes and Challenges

Yun Sun

In studies of contemporary China, information about the national security decision-making process is largely absent, despite the abundance of information and analysis on leadership politics and domestic policy-making. A proliferation of foreign policy actors in China has attracted much attention from researchers, leading to a booming number of investigations into the governmental and non-governmental players involved. The processes themselves―in which these players operate and interact to produce the eventual policy decisions―have eluded academic scrutiny, mostly due to the scarcity of available information. The topic, however, is critically important in achieving an accurate understanding of China’s national security policies which often seem unclear and plagued by conflicting messages.

In the Chinese context, the definition of “national security” is significantly different from that in the United States. For the American policy community, the term “national security” usually refers to the country’s external national security interests and threats. The responsibility for coordinating national security affairs lies primarily with the National Security Council. In China’s case, the term “national security” encompasses both domestic/internal and foreign/external security and, therefore, has a much broader connotation. This paper is primarily focused on the external dimensions of China’s national security. There are many overlapping aspects between China’s national security policy and its foreign policy, as the latter also serves to protect China’s national security interests. However, because national security also covers military security, national defense, economic security and other non-traditional security challenges, the framework and coverage is broader than with foreign policy.

This paper examines three processes of China’s national security decision-making: the decision-making at the top level, the policy-coordination process conducted through the National Security Leading Small Group (NSLSG), and the informational process for national security decision-making. Generally speaking, the supreme decision-making authority in China is monopolized and exercised through the collective leadership of the Politburo Standing Committee; this is especially true with regard to “strategically important” issues, such as Sino-U.S. relations. However, the paramount leader at the time of this writing, President Hu Jintao (the Politburo’s designated person for national security affairs) commanded large authority and privilege in determining regular national security policies. His primary advisor on national security (at the time of this writing State Councilor Dai Bingguo) played a central role in informing and advising him on key policy decisions. As the Director of the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (the same organization as NSLSG),[1] Dai also carried responsibility for inter-agency policy consultation and coordination through the NSLSG/FALSG. Information for national security decision-making is produced primarily by participating agencies and think tanks, but there is a standard process of screening, organizing, and disseminating that allows information to flow to the top.

A fundamental challenge for China’s national security decision-making system lies in the conflict between the need for centralization and the diffusion of power (collective leadership) at the top level. Decisions on strategically important issues must be based on consensus, which is created through time-consuming debates; consensus-building proves especially problematic when a timely response is required. As an informal and ad-hoc committee, the NSLSG does not operate as the core national security team designated to follow, analyze, and coordinate daily national security affairs, nor does it have the adequate human resources and professional capacity to play that role. In reality, its role is more or less confined to the organizer of research and coordinator of policies. Its authority on national security affairs is further undermined by unbalanced civil-military relations and the lack of civilian oversight over daily military operational activities. In the informational processes, the players in the Chinese system are extremely risk-averse. Confined by agency perspectives and career advancement interests, they are reluctant to report new findings that are not in line with established conventional wisdom.

Understanding that most of the challenges in the Chinese national security system have deep historical, political and structural roots, any attempt to address them must be bold and might seem politically unrealistic. Nevertheless, the recommendations offered in this paper are aimed at addressing the fundamental deficiencies of the current system. Their feasibility depends on the future of political reform, which although widely agreed as inevitable, has thus far been successfully avoided.

[1] The general understanding of the relationship between FALSG and NSLSG in China is that it is literally the same organization with two different titles (一个机构两块牌子). However, several government analysts pointed out that within the same organization there is a distribution of labor on national security and foreign policy between two different bureaus.