Its historic leap from ‘standing up, getting rich to becoming strong’ explains its diplomacy through the years.
At the time of its inception, China’s overall foreign policy was the reversion of national humiliation that western countries including Japan had inflicted on it since the mid 19th century. Transforming the image of the country from a weak, bullied and humiliated one to a strong and self-confident China, was projected as its domestic as well as foreign policy goal. Militarily, China’s goal was to be second to none; territorially, China wished to settle its border with neighbouring countries and regain all the territories including Tibet and Taiwan it claimed as its own; and economically, turn China into a rich and prosperous country. Today, China appears to have realised most of its foreign policy goals cut out at its inception.
Immediately after its inception in 1949, since China was completely ostracised by the western world, it at once found refuge in the communist bloc formed by the Soviet Union and its satellites, thus becoming an important constituent of the communist camp, having diplomatic relations with only 18 countries. While elucidating China’s foreign policy, Zhou Enlai remarked on 8 November 1949 that “Our foreign policy should be two-fold, i.e. alliance [lianhe] and struggle [douzheng]. Alliance with our brotherly states, however, in tactic we must reserve criticism; struggle against imperialism, but our tactic should be to join hands with them on certain issues.”
China’s “leaning to one side” forced it to venture on a strategy that would at minimum neutralise the Asian and African countries on the one hand, and render the western economic embargo against it ineffective on the other. This would allow China to engage in economic construction, which was in a shambles after the Sino-Japanese (11931-45) and the civil (1946-49) wars. This is clearly reflected in China’s handling of the Korean and Indo-China crises, and its positioning at the Asian-African Conference in Bandung. However, the extreme leftist errors that resulted in manmade disasters like three years of prolonged famine, which killed millions of people in wake of the “Great Leap Forward” plunged China into a crisis internally and into conflicts with its neighbours externally. China’s “democratic reforms” in Tibet that resulted in the Tibetan uprising and the flight of the Dalai Lama in 1959 deteriorated its relations with India and culminated in China’s war with India in 1962. As the Soviet Union initiated de-Stalinisation after Stalin’s death, the Chinese denounced Soviet Union as revisionist and competed with it for the ideological leadership of world communism. This resulted in China’s bloody conflict with the Soviet Union in 1969 and Sino-US rapprochement, restoration of its membership to the United Nations, and its invasion of Vietnam in 1979. There was a time when China ridiculed and undermined the role of the United Nations, but now it is one of the staunchest supporters of the UN and the second largest contributor to its peacekeeping operations.
With its de-Maoisation since 1978, China embarked on the path of opening up and reforms. Relying on “bide your time and hide your capabilities” strategy, China under Deng Xiaoping made great strides. With Sino-US rapprochement, the number of countries establishing diplomatic relations with China increased from 18 to 179, to date. In order to see the smooth return of Hong Kong and Macau in 1997 and 1999, China promised and implemented the “One Country, Two Systems” policy. As regards Taiwan, China continues to struggle with “foreign interference”, however, it was successful in convincing the Kuomintang (KMT) Party in Taiwan to accept the 1992 “One China” principle, which is being resisted tooth and nail by President Cai Yingwen’s Democratic Progressive Party, flaring up tensions across the straits. Moreover, the lingering turmoil in Hong Kong has posed serious challenges to China’s peaceful unification with Taiwan.
As the focus was to nurture its relationship with major powers, China during the 1990s under Jiang Zemin advocated “a new security concept” centred around “mutual trust, mutual benefits, equality, cooperation and coordination” and partnerships with countries that were non-aligned, non-conflictual, and not directed towards any other country. The last three were further elaborated and incorporated into a “new type of major power relationship” in an article on China’s peaceful rise in the Study Times brought out by the CPC’s Party School. It was during the second round of China’s strategic and economic dialogue in 2005 that China’s state counsellor, Dai Bingguo officially spelled out that the “new type of major power relationship” between China and the US should be built on the basis of “mutual respect, harmonious coexistence, and win-win cooperation”. In early 2012, the then Vice President of China, Xi Jinping, during his visit to the US, expounded that both China and the US must endeavour to build a 21st century new type of major power relationship. The above contents of the “new type of major power relationship” were incorporated by Hu Jintao in his speech during the fourth round of the China-US security and economic dialogue in May 2012 and a few months later by the 18th Party Congress of the CPC.
This concept of a relationship proposed by China has never been accepted by the US. As argued by eminent Chinese scholar Yan Xuetong, the US will never consider China fit for an equal footing in Asia Pacific as well as globally. If it does, its strategic relationship with some of its allies, say Japan and South Korea, will necessarily be “downgraded”. And moreover, the new type of major power relationship calls for “mutual respect”, but the honour and hubris of US hegemony will not deem China fit for that respect. From China’s perspective, the rationale behind this new type of relationship is to avoid the kind of conflict a bipolar world witnessed during the Cold War, and try to learn from the relationship the US and the UK established after World War II. However, this is not possible, as the focal point of China’s new type of relationship is “peaceful strategic competition” rather than the “comprehensive strategic cooperation” that resulted between the US and the UK. As US-China relations ran into rough weather due to strategic rivalry demonstrated by the trade war, China’s strategic relationship with Russia is on the upward and solid trajectory, and there is a rebalancing towards India and Japan.
With the ascendance of Xi Jinping on China’s political stage, China abandoned the Deng era “bide your time and hide your capabilities” demonstrated by its assertiveness over Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, reclamation and militarisation of some of the islands and archipelagos in the South China Sea, and more recently by displaying an array of new type of weaponry including the DF-17, DF-26, DF-41 ICBM, Gongji 11 attack UAV, Julang-2 SLBM etc., that will challenge US dominance in the Indo-Pacific on the one hand, and effect forceful unification of Taiwan on the other, if necessary. While enhancing China’s defence capabilities, President Xi Jinping has advocated grandiose concepts like “building communities of shared future” and the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), essentially a surgical strike on de-globalisation, protectionism and rebalancing to Asia strategy of the US. In the past six years, China has signed cooperation agreements with more than 160 countries and international organisations during the two BRI forums for international cooperation in 2017 and 2019. As China’s trade with the BRI countries exceeded $6 trillion, the China club, as many have referred to it, is undoubtedly becoming more and more attractive to countries across the globe including Italy and Switzerland, the new entrants to the BRI from Europe.
Indeed, by way of peaceful, strategic competition, China has trounced the US as a major trading nation across the continents, albeit it still needs to strive hard to become a global market. It has also infuriated the US by challenging the Bretton Woods institutions of global governance and establishing its own, such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, New Development Bank of the BRICS, the prospective Shanghai Cooperation Organization Development Bank; besides, China got many US allies lining up for the membership of these institutions. Nonetheless, China has argued that it is supplementing the existing institutions and sharing greater responsibility in global governance. China’s share of voting rights in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund has remarkably risen to the third place. It successfully hosted a number of summits such as the G20, APEC, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and BRICS, the BRI Forums, and Dialogue of the Asian Civilization, thus expanding its friends’ circle. It remains the staunchest supporter of the existing international order, as it has immensely benefited China in becoming the second largest economy in the world, alleviating some 800 million people from poverty in the last 70 years.
Finally, if the first three decades of the People’s Republic were full of internal strife and external conflicts, the last four decades witnessed China pursuing the policy of “good neighbourliness” during Jiang Zemin’s time, “harmonious peripheral diplomacy” during Hu Jintao’s time, and the “principle of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, inclusiveness and the policy of forging friendship and partnership” during the New Era of Xi Jinping. Undoubtedly, China’s historic leap from “standing up, getting rich to becoming strong” in one way also explains its diplomacy in the last 70 years. However, “becoming strong” has also brought China into direct conflict with the established hegemon and the contest which will be protracted has been unfolding in various shapes and forms. The trade war between them is just one of the manifestations.
B.R. Deepak is Professor of Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.