Chinese leaders have long contemplated the formation of a national security council to help coordinate and manage the country’s complex security apparatus. Chinese President Xi Jinping took that step in 2013, announcing the creation of the Chinese National Security Commission (CNSC). In July 2015, the Chinese government passed a new national security law that is likely to strengthen the commission’s role in China’s national security policy.

In a new Q&A, Zhao Kejin examines the origins and aims of the commission. He says the new body should prompt greater communication and coordination between China and the United States.

Why was the Chinese National Security Commission established?

According to Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first objective in establishing the CNSC is to help ensure the success of the deepening economic, political, and social reforms that are being carried out in China. In addition, the country’s new security commission, comprehensive security strategy, and national security law are expected to address the international security issues that China faces.

Zhao Kejin
Zhao Kejin was a resident scholar at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center until June 2020.
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The second goal of the CNSC is to establish a unified national security system. Before the CNSC was formed, the institutions for dealing with security were divided among many departments scattered throughout the Chinese Communist Party, the government, the military, and Chinese society. However, emergency situations that occur today require more effective management and cooperation among multiple departments. For example, there are more than ten departments involved in maritime security, and none of them can solve these problems on its own.

Third, the CNSC was created to support the leadership and policy objectives of the Communist Party, which oversees the country’s security, military, and diplomatic affairs. The new national security council falls under the party, rather than the national government, and the commission can be expected to support the goals of the party.

What are the main tasks of the CNSC?

The CNSC has three primary tasks. The first is to advise the Politburo, which oversees the Communist Party, and the highest levels of leadership in matters of strategy and security. 

The second is to carry out strategic coordination between the different departments, and to unify the departments throughout the party, the government, the military, and society. Individual departments will routinely prepare reports for the CNSC. The commission is also working to establish uninhibited and institutionalized communications channels among agencies that are involved in military, security, and diplomatic affairs.

The third task of the CNSC is to conduct crisis management and risk management, for both internal and external security threats. 

In the future, the overall policy direction for China’s national security will likely be determined by the Politburo, and the specific implementation of these policies will be the responsibilities of each of the departments. Overall coordination, as well as the determination of specific plans and crisis management, will be carried out by the CNSC.

How is the CNSC affecting China’s foreign policy? What is the commission’s working relationship with other established foreign policy organs?

Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, China’s diplomatic policies had their own distinct goals and were largely independent from other areas of security. They were focused on establishing strong relations with the rest of the world and creating a good environment to encourage economic development. However, with the launch of the CNSC, China’s diplomatic policy has received high-level direction and become more integrated. During CNSC meetings, the concept of overall security has been stressed, with all Chinese diplomacy intended to serve this goal.

In this regard, maintaining the long-lasting peace and stability of the nation should be the core goal. For example, when it comes to the China-U.S. relationship, diplomatic policies need to focus on ensuring mutual respect between the two countries, and the United States should not interfere in China’s internal affairs. For China, these are core interests.

It is important to remember that the CNSC will not involve itself in the internal micro-matters of a particular department. For example, the management of embassies and consulates abroad, as well as strategic dialogue in diplomacy, will still be the responsibility of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Unless there is an unexpected event or an emergency situation, the specific work will still be overseen independently by each department.

What is the CNSC’s relationship with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)? How can the commission help facilitate communication between government officials and military officials?

The new agency’s relationship with the People’s Liberation Army is similar to its relationship with the country’s foreign policy organs. The internal affairs of the PLA will still be handled independently, and specific training, drills, and communications will remain the responsibilities of the military. The CNSC will not replace the Central Military Commission or the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission.

There are a number of ways that the CNSC can promote communication among government officials. The first way is to hold meetings. For example, if the military wants to increase its budget, it will need to make a proposal and then arrange a meeting to discuss it. The second way is by introducing legislation in China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress. Finally, the commission may serve as a conduit, receiving information from government organs and disseminating it to other interested departments.

How have China’s views about the management of national security evolved over time?

China’s views about the best structure for managing national security have changed in recent years, as China has become a more globalized power.

Under the leadership of the Politburo and its top decisionmaking body, the Standing Committee, many institutions had been brought into the national security policy making process, including the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee, the Central Military Commission, the State Council, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of State Security. 

In the past, when the country’s external affairs were rather simple and chiefly characterized by clear divisions between friend and foe, this system satisfied China’s national security needs. In addition, most of the first generation of national leaders had been through the complicated test of battle, and that rich experience meant there was no need for a specialized institution or assistance to deal with matters of national security (as was also the case for the founding fathers of the United States). From Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping, these leaders essentially decided policy based on their personal experiences and the lessons they had learned in war.

But beginning in the 1990s, and especially after the death of Deng Xiaoping, China’s leadership primarily consisted of engineers and technocrats who had no war-fighting experience. In addition, China faced new national security challenges from the United States, particularly with regard to Taiwan. In this context, some Chinese officials proposed the establishment of a national security council. Under the leadership of renowned scholar Wang Daohan, institutions such as the Shanghai Institute for International Studies began to study this proposal, with a focus on the structure of the U.S. National Security Council.

In September 2000, the U.S. model was used to form the Central Leading Group for National Security, an informal agency for deliberation and coordination within the Communist Party that worked closely with the Foreign Affairs Leading Group. After this, when China found itself faced with increased security challenges, it was the Leading Group for National Security that initially raised policy suggestions. This group primarily focused on external security threats, analyzing their sources and severity and providing plans for dealing with them, while internal security issues were primarily the responsibility of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which is tasked with maintaining stability.

In this period, China’s national security apparatus appeared to be divided between external and internal policies. Initially, this structure was not problematic. However, as China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and issues of domestic and external security became intertwined, the very concept of national security itself began to expand. There were now not only traditional security issues, there were also nontraditional security issues; there were not only short-term security issues, there were also long-term security issues that were caused by a problematic economic situation.

All in all, China’s national security situation entered a state of increased complexity, with both foreign and domestic threats. The two-track system that had been in place faced a series of problems, including the decentralization of information, miscommunication, and compartmentalization. There was a lack of unified command, and there was an urgent need for an interactive and integrated strategy. It was against this backdrop that the decision was made in November 2013 to establish the CNSC.

How is China’s national security council similar to the U.S. model? In what ways will it be uniquely Chinese?

The national security councils in China and the United States both provide the highest echelons of leadership with advice as well as a platform for policy coordination.

In the United States, the National Security Council serves as the president’s personal advisory body. It is formally chaired by the president and used to coordinate policy among various government agencies and departments. Meetings held by the National Security Council are regularly attended by the vice president, national security advisor, and various cabinet officials.

By contrast, the CNSC is an institution of the Communist Party of China, and it is directly led by President Xi Jinping, who is the chairman of the Politburo, and by the vice chairmen. 

The CNSC is an administrative coordination agency. Unlike its U.S. counterpart (but similar to its Russian equivalent), it oversees several specific working departments, including bureaus involved with strategy, intelligence, security, and administrative affairs. The Chinese National Security Commission is also an interministerial body that coordinates the efforts of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People Consultative Conference, as well as those of other bodies, and it serves as a planning agency, with connections to think tanks. Thus, while the CNSC shares some traits with its U.S. counterpart, it also has special Chinese characteristics.

What should be the relationship between the U.S. National Security Council and its new Chinese counterpart?

It is important to establish mechanisms for high-level communication between the national security councils of China and the United States. 

Security issues between these two countries affect the entire world. China and the United States are two great powers that are both facing global security issues. The two nations need to improve communications regarding issues such as the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea, and China’s dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu (or, in Japanese, Senkaku) Islands.

In the event of an unexpected emergency, a hotline between the Chinese National Security Commission and the U.S. National Security Council would enable officials to set the agenda, share information, coordinate their responses, and stabilize the situation. The United States should propose this idea as a way to demonstrate its commitment to avoiding conflict and confrontation and demonstrating mutual respect.

The national security councils in China and the United States could also encourage strategic and security dialogue between the two nations and their national security leadership. Such enhanced communication will ultimately allow differences to be brought under control, and allow the Asia-Pacific region as well as the rest of the world to become more secure. 

This article was published as part of the Window into China series.