Jan 30, 2024 - World

The rise of China's shadow diplomacy

Illustration of a giant yellow star rising over the Earth in space and casting a giant shadow.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has reasserted the dominance of the Chinese Communist Party over the state's duties and actions. China's foreign affairs may be next.

Why it matters: Party-led diplomacy gives Beijing a powerful and largely unscrutinized backchannel with political power brokers in other countries. In the long run, it could reshape the norms of international relations to bring them more in line with Beijing's interests.

What's happening: An obscure CCP bureau that manages relations with political parties in other countries is taking center stage in China's foreign relations as its current chief is likely to soon become China's next foreign minister.

  • Veteran Chinese diplomat Liu Jianchao has taken a high-profile portfolio after former foreign minister Qin Gang was ousted last year and has been selected as the top candidate to replace him, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • He met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken the day before Taiwan's elections earlier this month, as the U.S. and China seek to maintain a delicate stability in their relationship.

Details: In 2022, Liu was appointed to head the CCP's International Department, the party office that oversees relations between the CCP and other political parties around the world.

  • The International Department's status and purview expanded in 2017 when Xi called for a "new model of party-to-party relations," and it's now taking a growing role in China's relations particularly across Africa, Latin America, and Pacific island nations.
  • The International Department leads CCP delegations to meet with members of political parties and welcome foreign delegations to China. It maintains relations with more than 400 political parties in over 160 countries.

The department is also now spearheading major initiatives such as the 2021 World Political Parties Summit, where Xi made veiled criticisms of U.S. "hegemony" and "unilateralism" to more than 10,000 delegates from 500 political parties.

  • The International Department also opened a party training school in Tanzania to teach rising African leaders from six countries how to implement a CCP-style one-party state — an effort overseen by Liu.
  • Party-to-party relations are key to promoting the "long-term and stable development of state-to-state relations" and are an important part of "major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics," Liu wrote in a 2022 article for Qiushi, the CCP's leading journal on party theory.

The big picture: Direct ties between the CCP and other political parties allow Beijing to sidestep the regulations and controversies that often govern state visits in other countries, and instead speak directly and privately with the people in power.

  • "China believes that party-to-party relations are important because political parties have both a broad reach in their respective country touching on almost every area of policy and a deep reach stretching from local to national politics," Joshua Eisenman, an expert on the CCP and China-Africa relations at the University of Notre Dame, told Axios.
  • "The party prefers party-to-party relations now, instead of foreign ministry to foreign ministry," said Anne-Marie Brady, a political scientist who researches Chinese foreign policy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, adding that the International Department now has a "lead role."

Between the lines: The appointment of a senior Chinese diplomat like Liu as International Department director showed it is "an increasingly important part of China's foreign relations apparatus," Eisenman said.

  • His possible appointment as foreign minister — an unusual path for a department head — would further underscore the growing role of the department in China's foreign affairs.

Zoom in: The International Department doesn't set policy for the foreign ministry — that's the role of CCP central foreign affairs commission — but rather works to pursue similar goals through different means.

  • The foreign ministry brings the regional expertise and the boots on the ground — the huge footprint of China's embassies and consulates around the world and the task of maintaining regular contact with the 180 governments of the countries with which China has official relations. Many, though not all, Chinese diplomats are CCP members.
  • The International Department has a far smaller staff, all of whom are CCP members, and it pursues Beijing's interests in a quieter and more targeted way.
  • "Until now the IDCPC has been able to work largely behind the scenes with almost no Western media reporting on its activities," Eisenman said.

Go deeper: The origins of China's wolf warrior diplomacy

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