When the Panatag Shoal became the subject of a territorial dispute between the Philippines and China, the Philippine government decided to send to China Sonia Brady, a retired ambassador, on the grounds that she had previously served there and had established valuable contacts. It was a risky choice because of her age, and it failed. Moreover, it may have been based on a faulty assumption. In her previous assignments in China, Ambassador Brady may not have established any contacts at all with the officials who decide foreign policy.
A government run by a Communist Party has a dual structure. On one hand is the government bureaucracy divided into cabinet ministries, while on the other is the Party apparat.
In China, and also in the defunct Soviet Union, each cabinet ministry has a counterpart body in the Communist Party’s Central Committee, which oversees the ministry. Thus, in the bureaucracy there is a ministry each for foreign affairs, agriculture, trade, education, etc., and in the Central Committee there is a counterpart committee for foreign affairs, agriculture, trade, education, etc.
Theoretically, the Central Committee makes the policy and the cabinet ministries implement it. However, to ensure Party control, commissars are assigned to each ministry to see to it that there is no “deviation” from the Party line. Unless the cabinet minister is also a top Party official, the people calling the shots are not those in the government bureaucracy but those in the Party apparat.
Throughout the history of the defunct Soviet Union, the major player in its foreign relations was not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but, rather, the body in the Party Central Committee initially called the Comintern and later the Cominform, and finally known by the innocuous name of International Department. It was this body that was assigned the all-important task of exporting world revolution. Most diplomats (save those from fraternal socialist countries) complete their assignments in Moscow without knowing that the foreign ministry officials they were dealing with might have been mere messengers. Most diplomats may not even be aware of the existence of the International Department. And even if they knew its importance, the question is whether they will even be given access to it.
During this writer’s tour of duty in Moscow, he made it a point to gain access to the International Department. He knew the importance of this body because he studied Sovietology in graduate school in Boston. Our ambassador then in Moscow was the late Alejandro Melchor. We managed to gain access to the head of the International Department who at that time was Anatoly Dobrynin, a seasoned Soviet diplomat.
One must remember, however, that when we gained access to Dobrynin in 1986, it was the era of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring or reform). Had we been there at the peak of the Cold War, we might not have gained such access. So this leads to the question: How important are contacts in the Chinese foreign ministry?
Most likely, not much.
The key is to consider the career track of the current foreign minister of China, Yang Jiechi, a diplomat who trained in the School of Foreign Languages (a similarly named school in the Soviet Union is a starting point to a career in diplomacy). He later went abroad to study in the London School of Economics. He has served abroad, mostly in the United States. In other words, he is not an apparatchik, or a career party official.
It would have been different had Yang risen from the Party ranks and later on transferred to the foreign ministry. The example of this in the Soviet Union is the late Vyacheslav Molotov. He rose from the ranks of the Party, became a Politburo member, and then was named foreign minister. One can conclude that when Molotov was serving as foreign minister, it was one of the rare instances in Soviet history when the foreign minister is the same guy who decides foreign policy. In the case of China now, somebody in the Standing Committee of the Politburo must be the real foreign minister, calling the shots on foreign policy.
There is a saying in Moscow during the Soviet era that “the Party is always right, only the bureaucracy can make mistakes.” There is a truth to this dictum, and it serves a useful purpose. When things went wrong in the Soviet Union, the Party was never blamed, only the bureaucrats who implemented government policy. Thus, if at some point China’s top guys decide to change their policy in the West Philippine Sea, Foreign Minister Yang would be a convenient scapegoat. He could be dismissed for “deviationism” from the communist foreign policy of establishing friendly relations with the rest of the world.
Our foreign service is organized on the doctrine that its officers are generalists, and not specialists. We should recognize this fact and stop looking for Sinologists in the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Ambassador Hermenegildo C. Cruz is a retired career diplomat. He studied Sovietology in The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and served a term as deputy chief of mission and ambassador in Moscow during the Soviet regime. His last posting was as ambassador to Chile.