Foreign policy decisionmaking in China has always been opaque, but under Chinese Communist Party General Secretary and President Xi Jinping, it has become even more cryptic. The strongest leader to come to power in more than two decades, Xi has concentrated power in his own hands and rarely vets foreign policy initiatives with the bureaucracy. In the past several years, decisionmaking has been at times rash and impulsive. This is evident especially in maritime affairs, including the announcement of an East China Sea air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in November 2013, the deployment of a deep water oil drilling rig in disputed waters near the coast of Vietnam in May 2014, and the frenetic-paced dredging in the South China Sea since early 2014.

Deliberations on maritime matters, when they occur, apparently take place in the Central Maritime Rights Protection Leading Small Group (中央海洋权益工作领导小组), which Xi Jinping heads. The group was established in mid-2012 with a mandate to do three things: 1) to formulate strategies to advance China’s maritime rights and interests; 2) to coordinate policy among numerous state entities in charge of maritime affairs; and 3) to manage growing conflict with other countries over disputed maritime territories. Members include high-level representatives from 17 government branches, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the Ministry of State Security (MSS), the Ministry of Agriculture, and the PLA Navy (PLAN).

Leading Small Groups (LSGs) are informal advisory mechanisms that are regularly used in China to manage specific policy areas, deliberate important or urgent issues, and provide policy recommendations to the Politburo Standing Committee. There are currently 18 central LSGs, seven of which are headed by Xi Jinping himself. LSGs convene on an as-needed basis. While meetings of LSGs that handle economic policy are now regularly reported by the Chinese media, including summaries of discussions and decisions, details about LSGs that are in charge of foreign policy issues are rarely disclosed.

The CCP’s Foreign Affairs Office (FAO) performs administrative functions for the Maritime Rights Protection LSG as well as for the Foreign Affairs LSG and the National Security LSG, both of which Xi Jinping also heads. The FAO is headed by Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi. Housed within the FAO is the Central Maritime Affairs Leading Small Group Office. Its vice chairman, under Yang, is Kong Quan, a diplomat who was formerly ambassador to France. Sources say that Xi frequently tasks the FAO to provide research and convene meetings. Research institutes that provide analysis and recommendations on maritime issues include the National Institute for South China Sea Studies located in Hainan province, the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations under the MSS, the PLA’s Naval Research Institute, and the China Institute for Marine Affairs, affiliated with the SOA.

Little is known about the work of the Maritime Rights Protection LSG. According to a few media reports, the LSG has been known to direct the tactical movements of Chinese surveillance vessels and navy ships “over radio or television phone.” Since the creation of the Maritime Rights Protection LSG, coordination has been notably enhanced among the navy, coast guard, SOA, and maritime militia. Beginning in November 2014, the entry of Chinese law-enforcement ships into the 12nm territorial sea around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea that are administered by Japan but claimed by China (as well as by Taiwan), which takes place three times per month, is choreographed with PLAN ships that simultaneously sail closer to the edge of the 24nm contiguous zone. It is possible that the LSG is providing guidance for such maneuvers.

Whether and when to establish an ADIZ in the South China Sea could be deliberated in the Maritime Rights Protection LSG. The decision to create the East China Sea ADIZ was likely not discussed in any LSG. Instead, it was probably raised in a Central Military Commission meeting, where Xi Jinping is chairman, and then approved by the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). Based on private discussions I have had with Chinese officials, the MFA was not consulted before the establishment of the East China Sea ADIZ. If the ministry had been in the loop, it probably would have weighed in against including an overlap with South Korea’s ADIZ, given the priority that was being accorded to improving Beijing’s relations with Seoul. Chinese scholars privately say Xi Jinping has learned lessons from that and other incidents in which hasty decisions had negative repercussions for Chinese interests, although there is little, if any, evidence to support this.

What little is known about the Maritime Rights Protection LSG and Chinese decisionmaking is based on interviews and a few investigative media reports. There is much more that is not known. For example, who determines when to convene the LSG? On issues that are deliberated within the LSG, if consensus is not reached, does Xi Jinping make the final decision himself or is the matter hashed out among PBSC members? Is the LSG involved in decisionmaking regarding land reclamation, construction, and militarization in the South China Sea? As long as foreign policy decisionmaking in China remains shrouded in secrecy, the answers to these questions will be difficult to uncover.

About Bonnie Glaser

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at CSIS, where she works on issues related to Chinese foreign and security policy. She is concomitantly a non-resident fellow with the Lowy Institute in Sydney, a senior associate with CSIS Pacific Forum and a consultant for the U.S. government on East Asia.