The image of the invincible Chinese dragon has now and then taken beatings. Consider the visit of the Chinese President Xi Jinping to India in 2014.
The image of the invincible Chinese dragon has now and then taken beatings. Consider the visit of the Chinese President Xi Jinping to India in 2014. President Xi was left embarrassingly red-faced on what was a goodwill visit, as the Indian media reported friction on the Line of Actual Control at a place called Chumar in Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir). This two-faced Chinese whammy—on one hand goodwill visit and on the other festering trouble at the border by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—made for a strange juxtaposition. Laypersons wondered if this was, indeed, a show of Chinese aggression. Others in the know indicated otherwise. Apparently, this pointed to the fault-line in the dragon’s security apparatus. Instead of the dragon showing a unified face in line with political diplomacy (as befits its power status), the blunder at the Sino-Indian borders reflected how disjointed and fragmented the dragon’s security apparatus could be.
China has long wracked its brains to address the lacunae—the lack of unison in its security apparatus. Unlike major powers such as America and France which pre-empt such omissions, China’s inability stemmed from the lack of a centralised national security agency. To prevent and check the same, the country’s security apparatus was recently revamped with the creation of its first integrated security agency: the Chinese National Security Commission (CNSC).
CNSC has been created under the ambit of the National Security Law, enacted in July 2015. It is a commission under the wings of the Communist Party of China. In other words, it is not a state agency. It appears to be a heavyweight body—President Xi is the chairman of CNSC, the two deputy heads are Premier Li Keqiang and chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress Zhang Dejiang. Not much is known about its structure, apart from the fact that it is two-tiered and manned by high-level officials/cadre.
It is said that CNSC was a response to address fragmented decision-making on security issues. China’s policy-making is complex, what with vertical and horizontal lines of authority, which inadvertently creates overlap and delay (though not of the Indian kind), earning epithets from ‘fragmented authoritarianism’ to ‘fragile superpower’. Pegged to CNSC is the hope that such a body will also help evolve a long-term national security strategy, so far said to be missing in strategic thinking.
The rationale behind creating CNSC is attributed to several factors, both internal and external.
First, CNSC appears to be an immediate response to the domestic security apparatus that has shown a glitch or two. The bizarre case of concentration of power in the hands of a single all-powerful party member manning the domestic security apparatus was evident in the downfall of the former ‘security czar’ Zhou Yongkang (minister of public security, 2007-12; secretary of Political and Legal Affairs Commission, 2007-12). It is alleged that ‘security czar’ Zhou created a personal power base to the detriment of the system and the party. Further, the need to integrate the domestic (internal) security apparatus with the external security apparatus has also risen. In principle, CNSC, a collective body, is seen as the mechanism for handling and integrating internal/external security concerns.
Second, China’s top decision-making bodies are the Politburo and Standing Committee of the Politburo (which ranks higher than the Politburo) of the Communist Party. External security decisions—such as war and peace—are taken with consultation of several key units such as the Central Military Commission, the State Council (Cabinet) and the National People’s Congress (akin to Lok Sabha, only in name).
In addition to these key units, Chinese decision-making landscape is manned by several ad hoc and permanent bodies called Central Leading Groups. These are constituted from time to time to share increased workload. The Central Leading Group on Foreign Affairs is well known. In practice, integrating and coordinating actions across the lines of authority that intersect party, government and military has not been impossible, but inefficient. CNSC is seen as the nodal or apex body that integrates decision-making across party, government and military.
Third, CNSC was a response to the changed internal and external security environment. China’s concept of national security has undergone a change to encompass ‘overall security’ (da an quan), meaning both internal and external security.
Internally, non-traditional threats such as cyber-security, ethnic conflict and terrorism appear to be the major challenges. The ambit of China’s former State Security Law (1993) was framed in times when netizens were not a threat and social upheaval was a faraway possibility. Not any more. Today, manifold challenges of social unrest, ethnic conflict (in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Tibet Autonomous Region), netizens and laid-off workers are perceived as potential flashpoints.
The external dimension of security has also changed with the transformation of China’s standing due to its economic rise. Despite economic downturn, China’s growth is more than that of its neighbours. The dragon has become—despite the American claim of being an Asia-Pacific power—the pivot of ASEAN trade and the keel of Asia.
China has been engaged in re-framing its diplomatic capability as ‘big power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics’. Chinese foreign policy in the current official lingo is described as ‘active foreign policy’ with ‘peripheral diplomacy’ (relations with neighbouring countries) as an important component. Its ‘peripheral diplomacy’ is reflected in its ambitious plans—Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road—that envisage China’s footprints all the way from Central Asia to Africa. Closer in the neighbourhood, it has to engage with America in Asia (as America seeks a ‘rebalancing’ in the region) and contend with Japan. China’s increasing interface with the neighbours and big powers in the region—from America to South China Sea to ASEAN—sealed the case for an integrated security apparatus.
Thus, CNSC, an apex agency, is the outcome of deliberations to disable compartmentalisation and manifestly strengthen centralised, unified leadership over national security work. The four responsibilities of CNSC are spelt out as ‘stipulating and implementing state security strategies’, ‘pushing forward the construction of the rule of law system concerning state security’, ‘setting security principles and policies’ and ‘conducting research’.
How does the new Chinese apparatus compare with America’s well-oiled National Security Council? Unlike China’s party-created security apparatus, the American National Security Council is a statutory body created by the National Security Act, 1947. It is a highest-level coordinating body of security affairs to “advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign and military policies, relating to the national security.” Ultimately, it is the President who “drives home the hammer.” In America’s federal polity with checks and balances—as opposed to China’s unitary polity—the security apparatus has been lauded as a success.
How does China’s new apparatus compare with the Indian security apparatus? India’s first integrated security apparatus is fairly new—the National Security Council (NSC) was created only in 1999. Unlike America or China where the body is chaired by the President, in India it is chaired by the Prime Minister. The Indian apparatus was envisaged as a three-tiered body, with NSC at the apex, the Strategic Policy Group headed by the Cabinet Secretary and the three service chiefs, and the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), a body of experts.
However, the Indian experiment may be going awry. In recent past, cracks seem to show as the apex body has neither been meeting regularly nor has the advisory group (NSAB) been reconstituted since its term expired in 2015.
China’s CNSC is ground in good logic, but as the Indian example shows, there is a gap between theory and practice. The American security apparatus is successful; there are always checks on the President’s power.
So, how will CNSC fare? Questions loom on its sustainability and independence, given that it could be subverted by the agenda of the party that created it. It could be threatened by an all-powerful chairperson at the apex. And the party-state is known to create and suffocate institutions.
The outcome is hard to predict. One scenario is it will address challenges old and new, internal and external security issues in tune with its ‘big power’ status by really integrating national security needs. The other scenario is it might be crippled by centralising power beyond the need. Consensual decision-making at the apex has been ebbing with the rise of a sole pre-eminent leader. At least China will hope that the next time President Xi comes to India or visits the neighbourhood, the random actions of the PLA will not embarrass him.
The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi. She is the author of Finding India in China