Who has a greater impact in formulating BRI – leadership or bureaucracies?

Source (World Intellectual Property)

This blog post argues that bureaucracies have a greater impact in foreign policy formulation when applied to the case study of China’s flagship Belt and Road initiative (hereafter known as BRI), with Xi’s increasing centralisation of foreign policy making power not directly applying to BRI formulation. Instead, Xi and the NRDC’s vague framing of the BRI gives space for bureaucracies to justify various kinds of policies that fit within the BRI framework. This is especially seen in the actions of provincial leaders, who play a pivotal role in the formulation of the BRI policies as they seek to compete for political prestige and resources. Therefore, the policies that we currently see under the BRI framework are formulated by various bureaucratic departments within China rather than formulated by Xi. This piece helps give a different perspective as to how you can interpret Chinese grand strategy and how foreign policy is made in China.

Bureaucratic politics theory

Bureaucratic politics is an increasingly prevalent theory within IR academia used to analyse a state’s foreign policy. First developed by Graham Allison, the theory argues that the government developing foreign policy is neither a rational actor nor a conglomerate of loosely allied organisations, but many individuals representing different governmental departments participating in a competitive game. Foreign policy is thus developed through the pulling and hauling and internal bargaining among the various actors within the government, each representing their own interests and hoping to dominate the issue on hand. How and what the department proposes depends on where you sit. Organisations and bureaucracies are in constant rivalry against each other, proposing policies which fit the current situation. They do so in order to gain resources and influence within government. The resulting foreign policy is therefore developed depending on the bureaucracies’ respective power, position within the government and the bargaining skills.

Bureaucracies are important as they generate outputs that structure the situations in which policy makers take decisions, including the information with which policy makers make their decisions and foreign policy alternatives presented for government to choose from. As such, “players” within the government choose in terms of no consistent set of strategic objectives but rather according to various conceptions of national security, organisation, domestic and personal interests. Bureaucracies thus play an active role in creating and formulating foreign policies.

It is crucial to note that the development of bureaucratic politics theory is mostly concerned with describing how foreign policy is developed within Western countries. When applied to the Chinese model, provincial party secretaries and governors form a part of the bureaucratic model. 7 out of the 25 members within the Politburo (China’s principal policy-making mechanism) are provincial party secretaries. They are a crucial part of the leadership hierarchy – the provincial governor of Chongqing ranks No. 14 in the Central Committee and is a member of Politburo. Provinces are crucial in Chinese foreign policy in terms of “carpetbagging” existing directives – provinces introduce new ideas and policies under existing frameworks. Provincial leaders develop policies which allow them to deliver on rapid economic growth – in turn giving them political credit. Moreover, provincial leaders are an important section in Chinese politics as they are seen to be pivotal stepping stones to top national offices in China. Therefore, when applying bureaucratic politics model to China, one should also consider the role provincial leaders play.

Leadership and executive dominance

Leadership can be seen to have a great impact on foreign policy formulation. Leaders can shape the international environment through creative signalling, persuasion and building coalitions. Thus, foreign policy is developed by a small group of actors with the national leader at top of the structure. This theory is divergent from the bureaucratic politics theory as stated above, with leaders being the focal point of the formulation of foreign policy instead of bureaucracies. A leader can also be seen to have impact on foreign policy formulation if one is able to state a strong strategic vision in order to mobilise the system and to shape foreign policy accordingly.

Hermann develops a theoretical framework in which leaders are influential in foreign policy. Leaders are individuals who 1) have an active interest and involvement with foreign issues; 2) foreign policies are critical to the well-being of the regime; 3) issue involves high-level diplomacy or protocol, and; 4) issue of special interest to the leader. Under such considerations, leaders will generally seek to ‘control the foreign policy agenda and shape what happens. In other words, leaders play an active role when formulating foreign policy and act as the ultimate authority when it comes to decisions regarding foreign policy.

Ultimately, the national leader wields centralised constitutional power and is able to dictate policymaking and decision-making processes.

The focus on leadership and executive dominance can be seen to be directly applicable to the analysis of Chinese foreign policy. Zhao characterises China’s form of leadership as “vertical authoritarianism” – where the paramount leader dominates and makes virtually every strategically important decision regarding foreign policy issues. Basic characteristics of this system is a vertical command channel where leaders make the ultimate decision and participation of political institutions and governmental bureaucracies are passive. Indeed, Xi Jinping is the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng, with his success in consolidating power within the Chinese political sphere. Xi’s reforms have allowed him to retain tight control over foreign policy. He has reduced the role of the State Council, Foreign Ministry and military in important decisions and has given himself greater freedom from political and bureaucratic opponents that can influence Chinese foreign policy. As such, Xi’s centralised leadership structure means that his influence on foreign policy formulation is unparalleled. To analyse Chinese foreign policy, one must understand Xi and his role within China.

Case study: China & Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)

BRI is China’s flagship foreign policy since 2013. It encompasses six “economic corridors” and three maritime economic passages. It involves more than 100 countries and includes infrastructure deals, trade policies and investment opportunities. The guidance for the BRI is jointly produced by the National Development and Reform Commission (NRDC), Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in 2015. In order to test the theories, one need to decipher who takes the active role in formulating the foreign policies that we see today. In the case of BRI, bureaucracies have a greater impact on foreign policy formulation. Xi’s centralisation of power does not have a significant impact on the BRI. Instead, the vagueness of the BRI guidelines as set out by Xi and the NRDC has allowed bureaucracies to push out policies under the “BRI” umbrella that pursue their own interests. Provinces, in particular, are active in such a role and have significant impact on the formulation of the BRI.

Leadership and BRI

BRI is conventionally seen as highly centralised and coordinated from the top of the Chinese political leadership. Xi’s centralisation of foreign policy making powers into his hands, coupled with his high visibility in BRI projects, has prompted scholars in arguing that Xi has significant and active impact on the formulation of BRI. Xi has a prominent role in launching the BRI – he launched the BRI personally in 2013 as his signature foreign policy idea, personally announced the Silk Road Economic Belt in September 2013 in Kazakhstan and the Maritime Silk Road in Indonesia in October 2013. Xi’s speeches defined the vision, ideas and principles in the BRI. President Xi alone was in charge of the external promotion of the BRI in 2015 and 2016; and major BRI contracts and projects were signed by President Xi or followed his foreign visits. Xi prominent role in providing the visions of the BRI and his diplomatic function thus provides strong evidence that he has significant impact in the formulation of the BRI.

The BRI is thus seen as a practical realisation of Xi’s strategic visions of the “China dream” and the “Community of shared destinies of mankind”. The “Chinese dream” is the argument that ‘by 2049 China should restore itself to a regional position of primacy. The “Community of shared destinies of mankind” is the scheme to represent humanity’s relentless pursuit of common interests and universal values…and create a future for humanity where state-to-state relations are sovereign and equal…, defined by common prosperity though win-win cooperation. Oil-for-infrastructure projects are parts of the BRI portfolio where China wishes to ensure energy security and maintain internal economic growth to ensure prosperity and fulfil the Chinese dream. Such policies boost China’s nationalist legitimation by emphasising China’s newfound power, wealth and global standing. Infrastructure projects provided to peripheral countries in Asia such as Pakistan and Myanmar can be seen as efforts for China to outsource their development experiences and bridge the significant infrastructure gap in Asia, Africa and Latin America. BRI can therefore be seen as a practical realisation of Xi’s two ideological frameworks of the “Chinese dream” and the “Community of shared destinies of mankind”.

Problems with leadership theory

However, the centralisation of foreign policy-making power in China is not clearly reflected in the process of the BRI. Centralisation of foreign policy decision-making has led to Xi’s increasing use of Leading Small Groups (LSGs) – coordinating bodies that address important policy areas. Xi’s role on these LSGs is crucial – chairing around a dozen LSGs himself and dubbed the chairman of everything. However, it is crucial to state that Xi is not the chairman of the BRI LSG. Instead, during 2013-2018, former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli was the chair of the LSG. He is now replaced by the Han Zheng, the second-in-charge of China’s government. This signals that this policy area is less important than others. The LSG for BRI is characterised as weak as it is headed by a vice-premier rather than by Xi himself. This is against the “leadership” theory as Xi’s absence as chair of the BRI LSG signals a lack of interest in the BRI project and denotes a model of remote rather than direct control from Xi despite his increasing centralisation of power.

Moreover, it is problematic to argue that the BRI represents XI’s strategic visions of “China Dream” and “Community of shared destinies of mankind”. This is because there are projects under the BRI umbrella that are implemented before Xi’s presidency. For example, Guangxi’s development of the Beibu Gulf Economic Zone was initiated in 2006. Yunnan’s “Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar” corridor has its origins in 1998. The diversity of policies under the BRI umbrella and the different times of initiation shows that the BRI is not merely a tool for Xi to realise his strategic visions. Instead, there are more factors in play when considering what gives the BRI its current form.

Vague language

Bureaucracies have a greater impact on the formulation of BRI as they are responsible for the actual content of the BRI. This is due to the vagueness of the BRI guidelines set out by Xi and the NRDC. Indeed, one of the main consequences of Xi’s centralisation of power is that it has left him needing to resort to vague language when formulating foreign policy guidelines, thus allowing Xi to be absolved from blame in case of policy missteps. This is clearly seen in the case of the BRI – where the lack of specificity makes it possible for actors to justify many different kinds of action. The BRI is described as an ongoing and creative open project – where it takes the form of an elastic framework which can absorb change and be easily adapted. There is a lack of official guidelines or a coherent framework in which one can define what BRI is or what constitutes a BRI project. The central guiding document for BRI is seven pages long and lists broad principles such as “go where the demand is” and “share responsibilities and progress together” instead of concrete guidance, leaving BRI open for definition. The guidelines put out by the NRDC is described as more of a sweeping vision than an organisational blueprint, with nobody seemingly in charge.

Its inherent vagueness thus allows ministries to use particular sections of the BRI and justify their policies. For the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, BRI involves creating policies to reassure Asian neighbours troubled by China’s increasing assertiveness. For the People’s Liberation Army, BRI rationalises higher military spending to protect overseas investments. For Ministry of Finance and People’s Bank of China, BRI can spur RMB internationalisation and circumvent institutions such as the Asian Development Bank and instead promote the influence of state-owned banks such as the Export-Import Bank / China Development Bank. Thus, dozens of agencies within China’s bureaucracies interpret the BRI according to their sectional interests rather than a centrally defined strategy. Different interest groups within China have been able to claim that their pet projects are part of the BRI. Bureaucratic politics thus fare better in terms of explaining the formulation of the BRI. Due to the vague framing of BRI guidelines and the absence of Xi as the leader of BRI, state ministries and local provincial municipalities thus have the space to jockey for resources and political influence.

Role of provinces

Provincial leaders, moreover, are able to use the vagueness of the BRI to implement policies that pursue their own interest. As stated above, China’s version of bureaucracies involves the importance of provincial leaders and their relative hierarchical order. They have significant influence in terms of BRI policy formulation as the BRI provides them with a tool to attain political favour and gain political resources. In China, 32 provinces are involved in BRI projects. Provincial governments have sought to harness BRI to existing plans and agenda, and / or to curry political favour by re-branding them with Xi’s slogan. Involvement with the BRI allows provinces to receive a generous budgetary support in developing the chosen projects. Some provinces have begun to form alliances with certain central ministries to bid for project approvals, while other provincial leaders communicate directly with the members of the Small Leading Group to gain their approvals.

Indeed, provincial differences in interests are crucial when it comes to explaining the different types of projects under the BRI umbrella. Provinces develop BRI polices in accordance to their own interests and needs rather than in accordance to a top-down nationalist goal. For example, Ningbo identified a need to upgrade its manufacturing industries and attract investment in technology. As such, Ningbo developed a BRI policy characterised by a strong state which expanded and upgraded its new Plum Mountain economic zone to attract foreign investors and implemented a Central-Eastern Europe Consortium to increase its global profile. Wenzhou, on the other hand, focused on private economy and developed a BRI policy by financing the Belt and Road Goods Annual Expo held in Italy for Chinese private entrepreneurs to showcase their goods in Europe. Chongqing’s interest is on its revival of its state-owned enterprise – Chongqing Foreign Trade Group – and therefore its BRI policy is focused on the global expansion of the SOE’s e-commerce department. Thus, Ningbo, Wenzhou and Chongqing are all active participants of the formulation of their own BRI policies that fit within the BRI framework proposed. They are different economic policies developed specifically in line with the economic interests within their own provinces.

The competition between provinces can be seen in two BRI policies with Malaysia. In 2013, Guangxi reached an agreement under the BRI framework with Malaysia’s Pahang state government to upgrade the Kuantan port. In 2015, Guangdong signed a rival agreement with Malaysia’s Malacca state, including a US$10bn port upgrade. This example reflects the internal bureaucratic competition between provinces in leveraging the vague BRI guidelines as set out by Xi and using the BRI framework to gain resources and political credit.

The vagueness of the BRI guidelines outlined by Xi and the NRDC means that leaders at the top only have a steering function, giving broad license for bureaucracies to formulate policy according to their own interests under the BRI umbrella. Using Chinese provinces as the key example, I have shown that bureaucracies have a greater impact on the formulation of BRI. BRI cannot be seen as a case where it is planned out and implemented by the top leaders in the Chinese government. Instead, it represents a case where the policies we see today are produced by bureaucracies who aim to pursue their own interests and compete for resources.


In conclusion, bureaucracies have a greater impact on foreign policy formulation in the case of BRI. Bureaucracies have a greater impact as Xi’s vague framing of BRI guidelines allow bureaucracies to pursue policies that reflect their own interests. This is especially seen in provincial leaders, where provinces tailor their economic policies to their own needs to achieve rapid economic gain and re-frame pre-existing policies in order to gain political prestige. This bureaucratic view on Chinese foreign policy making can also help provide a different perspective on conventional views on Chinese foreign policy which emphasises the dominant role of Xi Jinping. Instead, to obtain a more complete view of Chinese foreign policy, underlying domestic currents can be useful as part of the answer.

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