Chinese foreign policy in Central Asia: who makes it and what matters?

Vito S. Acosta is a non-resident research fellow at Crossroads Central Asia

This article contextualizes Chinese policy in Central Asia through a concise exploration of the “who, how, and why” of the engagement of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the region. First, it provides an overview of key actors and structures in the PRC governance system and their influences on policy-making. It then examines the centralization of foreign policy authority and heightened securitization under Xi Jinping. This focus on “comprehensive national security” is particularly acute in Central Asia, as underscored by a review of the trajectory of PRC relations in the region, where it has exported its vigilance against the specters of terrorism, extremism, and separatism in its overall mission for a stable western frontier.


In the formal political system of the PRC, while the power of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is paramount and omnipresent, decisions are made along dual tracks: the Party and the government systems. The State Council, led by the Premier, is the “cabinet” of the government, responsible for the various ministries, commissions, and administrative organizations of lower rank within the government system. Parallel and above the government system are the coordination bodies of the CPC. The CPC is led by the General Secretary, Xi Jinping, in whom power and authority have become increasingly concentrated, particularly in the realm of foreign affairs. The Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) endorses major decisions, including those pertaining to foreign and security policy, and provides strategic guidance for external affairs. These policies, however, are prepared elsewhere, in commissions, leading small groups, ministries, and lower levels of government.

The hierarchy of authority in the PRC is outlined in a system of ranks. The highest Party ranks are higher than the highest governmental ranks, and nearly all individuals charged with policy are first and foremost members of the CPC. The authority of an order is determined by the rank of the individual or institution which issued it. Following the General Secretary of the CPC, members of the PSC outrank general members of the Politburo; within governmental ranks, following the Premier, vice-premiers and directors of commissions outrank state councilors. When Xi Jinping travels abroad, PSC members who act as his advisors rank higher and are treated according to protocol with more seniority than the top foreign affairs official, the Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, who, in turn, ranks higher than the Minister of Foreign Affairs.[1] As of January 2024, Wang Yi holds both of the latter offices since the departure of Qin Gang from the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs. The officials with the greatest direct authority for national-level foreign policy are thus:

  1. Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the CPC
  2. Li Qiang, Premier of the State Council, and other PSC members who act as advisors to Xi Jinping, such as Cai Qi (whose role as Director of the Central Committee General Office is influential in policy-making), Ding Xuexiang, and Wang Huning.
  3. Wang Yi, Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission and Minister of Foreign Affairs

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a wing of the Party and answers to the Central Military Commission (CMC), headed by the CPC General Secretary, Xi Jinping.[2] The People’s Armed Police (PAP), which has taken the primary role in security and counterterrorism efforts in Central Asia, is subordinated directly to the CMC and the Central Committee. The CMC serves as an advisory body on key military-related foreign policy subjects. Due to the departmental compartmentalization of the PLA, however, “no authority within the PLA has the authority and responsibility to routinely demand and receive notice of PLA activities that might impact China’s foreign policy,”[3] and the PLA often has neglected to notify other ministries when its activities may affect foreign relations.

Diplomacy is conducted primarily through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Within senior decision-making bodies, however, foreign affairs professionals from the MFA appear to be principally used to provide information and manage policy implementation after a decision.[4] Chinese diplomats are known to be “out-of-the-loop” in policy formation, serving instead primarily to advocate and implement existing policy and advise on their areas of expertise. The MFA is “often not informed by other agencies about incidents or decisions pertaining to China’s international relations despite the fact that the MFA is the agency tasked with responding to queries by foreign diplomats and the international media,”[5] and this lack of communication is especially prevalent with regard to the PLA.

The Ministry of Commerce (MOCOM) influences geoeconomics policy through the Ministry of Commerce Foreign Economic Offices present in Chinese embassies and missions.[6] It is also at the forefront of trade disputes. The MFA and MOCOM have been the source of bureaucratic rivalry, with the MOCOM generally preferring to promote business on behalf of Chinese SOEs, whereas the MFA generally emphasizes strengthening bilateral ties or Chinese influence in multilateral organizations.[7] In 2018, the MOFCOM’s Department of Foreign Aid, responsible for aligning aid with strategic objectives, was turned into a new agency, the China International Development Cooperation Administration (CIDCA).

The Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) is overseen by a BRI leading group housed under the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), which is responsible for the nation’s general economic development. The fact that the BRI is coordinated as part of economic policy, not foreign policy, is significant and offers a clue pointing to its origins in domestic economic stimulus. The persistent attention drawn to BRI and the “New Silk Road” rhetoric has not been matched with a centralized allocation scheme to create projects for a Chinese grand strategy. If it were, one would expect that the framework would be run through the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Commerce, as well as the CFAC, but this is not the case. The role of the BRI leading group and the NDRC, moreover, is not to initiate strategic moves but, rather, mostly to approve and oversee projects submitted for consideration and promote them as part of the larger BRI framework. Consequently, the proposals for BRI projects which are submitted to the NDRC have already been formulated by various actors – SOEs, provincial and municipal government officials, BRI host country officials, and policy banks – who craft them to fit their own goals, a bottom-up answer to a top-down call for action.

At the provincial level, the Party Secretary is the most senior official and the top representative to conduct relationships abroad. In March 2023, the Xinjiang Party Secretary, Ma Xingrui, traveled to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, where, in a meeting with Kazakh President Tokayev, he emphasized that 40% of Chinese-Kazakh trade is through Xinjiang and stressed Xinjiang’s responsibility for China’s ties to the west: “In general, China’s cooperation with Kazakhstan is carried out through Xinjiang.”[8] [to read the full version, please download the paper]

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[1] Jakobson and Manuel, “How are Foreign Policy Decisions Made in China?” 103. Note that China’s “top diplomat” is not the Minister of Foreign Affairs, as is common in many other countries.

[2] The CPC General Secretary is the only civilian member of the CMC; there is no equivalent to a Secretary of Defense in the PRC system.

[3] Swaine, “China’s Assertive Behavior, Part 3: The Role of the Military in Foreign Policy,” 9.

[4] Jakobson and Knox, “New Foreign Policy Actors in China.” 8.

[5] Jakobson, “Domestic Actors and the Fragmentation of China’s Foreign Policy,” 207.

[6] Kenderdine, “Who Makes Foreign Policy in China?”, The Diplomat. February 04, 2022.

[7] Jie and Ridout, “Who Decides China’s Foreign Policy?”, 7.

[8] Zhou, Laura. “China’s provincial leaders take centre stage in Beijing’s diplomatic push to charm neighbours,” South China Morning Post, April 16, 2023; Kumenov, Almaz. “Kazakhstan keeps lid tight on Xinjiang activism in pursuit of trade boom.” Eurasianet, March 29, 2023.

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