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Foreign Relations - Early Developments

China' Early Diplomacy

Since its establishment, the People's Republic has worked vigorously to win international support for its position that it is the sole legitimate government of all China, including Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. In the early 1970s, Beijing was recognized diplomatically by most world powers. Beijing assumed the China seat in the United Nations (UN) in 1971 and has since become increasingly active in multilateral organizations. Japan established diplomatic relations with China in 1972, and the United States did so in 1979. As of March 2008, the number of countries that had diplomatic relations with Beijing had risen to 171, while 23 maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

After the founding of the P.R.C., China's foreign policy initially focused on solidarity with the Soviet Union and other communist countries. In 1950, China sent the People's Liberation Army into North Korea to help North Korea halt the UN offensive that was approaching the Yalu River. After the conclusion of the Korean conflict, China sought to balance its identification as a member of the Soviet bloc by establishing friendly relations with Pakistan and other Third World countries, particularly in Southeast Asia.

In the 1960s, Beijing competed with Moscow for political influence among communist parties and in the developing world generally. Following the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and clashes in 1969 on the Sino-Soviet border, Chinese competition with the Soviet Union increasingly reflected concern over China's own strategic position.

In late 1978, the Chinese also became concerned over Vietnam's efforts to establish open control over Laos and Cambodia. In response to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, China fought a brief border war with Vietnam (February-March 1979) with the stated purpose of "teaching Vietnam a lesson."

Chinese anxiety about Soviet strategic advances was heightened following the Soviet Union's December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Sharp differences between China and the Soviet Union persisted over Soviet support for Vietnam's continued occupation of Cambodia, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Soviet troops along the Sino-Soviet border and in Mongolia--the so-called "three obstacles" to improved Sino-Soviet relations.

In the 1970s and 1980s China sought to create a secure regional and global environment for itself and to foster good relations with countries that could aid its economic development. To this end, China looked to the West for assistance with its modernization drive and for help in countering Soviet expansionism, which it characterized as the greatest threat to its national security and to world peace.

China maintained its consistent opposition to "superpower hegemony," focusing almost exclusively on the expansionist actions of the Soviet Union and Soviet proxies such as Vietnam and Cuba, but it also placed growing emphasis on a foreign policy independent of both the United States and the Soviet Union. While improving ties with the West, China continued to follow closely economic and other positions of the Third World nonaligned movement, although China was not a formal member.

In the immediate aftermath of Tiananmen crackdown in June 1989, many countries reduced their diplomatic contacts with China as well as their economic assistance programs. In response, China worked vigorously to expand its relations with foreign countries, and by late 1990, had reestablished normal relations with almost all nations. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, China also opened diplomatic relations with the republics of the former Soviet Union.

President Hu's "Harmonious World" foreign policy, officially sanctified at the 17th Party Congress in October 2007, explicitly endorses the existing world order and declares that China's interest is in maintaining a stable international environment where it can pursue domestic economic and social development goals. China's foreign policy leaders take great pains to highlight China's "developing country" status as a way to offset international calls for China to play a more significant international role, and to expend more material and political resources, commensurate with its "emerging power" status.

Most experts in China recognize the need for a forum where leaders in Northeast Asia can address issues of common concern. "Southeast Asia has ASEAN, Europe has the OSCE, Latin America has the OAS, why is it that this region, with most of the world's economic potential and enormous strategic importance has no comparable mechanism" asked MFA Deputy Director General for Policy Planning Le Yucheng. While acknowledging regional participation in APEC, ASEAN Plus 3, the East Asia Summit and other regional fora, those groupings either too cumbersome or too large to effectively address issues unique to Northeast Asia. APEC is too big, ASEAN is too far away and the EAS hasn't demonstrated it can do anything.

In recent years, Chinese leaders have been regular travelers to all parts of the globe, and China has sought a higher profile in the UN through its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and other multilateral organizations. Closer to home, China has made efforts to reduce tensions in Asia, hosting the Six-Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program, cultivating a more cooperative relationship with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and participating in the ASEAN Regional Forum. China has also taken steps to improve relations with countries in South Asia, including India. Following Premier Wen's 2005 visit to India, the two sides moved to increase commercial and cultural ties, as well as to resolve longstanding border disputes. The November 2006 visit of President Hu was the first state visit by a Chinese head of state to India in 10 years.

China improved ties with Russia, and President Hu chose Moscow for his first state visit after his election in 2003. China and Russia conducted a first round of joint military exercises in August 2005 and engaged in two further rounds in 2007 and 2009. China has played a prominent role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional grouping that includes Russia and the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Relations with Japan improved following Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's October 2006 visit to Beijing, and have continued to improve under successive Japanese administrations. Tensions persist with Japan on longstanding and emotionally charged disputes over history and competing claims to portions of the East China Sea.

While it is one of Sudan's primary diplomatic patrons, China has played a constructive role in support of peacekeeping operations in southern Sudan and deployed 315 engineering troops in support of UN-African Union (AU) operations in Darfur. China stated publicly that it shares the international community's concern over Iran's nuclear program and voted in support of UN sanctions resolutions on Iran, most recently voting for the June 2010 UN Security Council Resolution 1929 for further sanctions. Set against these positive developments has been an effort on the part of China to maintain close ties to countries such as Iran, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela, which are sources of oil and other resources and which welcome China's non-conditional assistance and investment.

Since the beginning of the reform era, China generally followed Deng Xiaoping's advice to maintain a low profile and focus on its own development. In this spirit, China's pledge of "non-interference" in other nations' affairs became a pillar of China's declared foreign policy. More recently, some have viewed President Hu Jintao's trademark "Harmonious World" policy as a subtle renunciation of non-interference that acknowledges the need for China to be engaged in a globalized world.

China remained poor and confronted economic development challenges on a large scale. Continued access to energy supplies and raw materials on the international market is essential to China's continued economic growth, which means continued reliance on global peace and stability and the existing global security system to protect such shipments. The frequent pious invocation of "non-interference in internal affairs" provides a thin political justification for China's fundamentally mercantile pursuit of resources in Burma, Iran, Sudan and other pariah states. The tension between China's long-term, broad global interests and its short-term, naked national interests will persist in Chinese foreign policy for some time.

China actively pursues educational exchanges, cultural performances, youth exchanges and other instruments of "soft power." Development assistance to resource-rich nations has also grown and remains generally without conditions (except with respect to the Taiwan issue). China is also making attempts to break into what it sees as an undesirable Western, and specifically American, monopoly of the international news media and to offer an alternative to ubiquitous American popular culture. Soft power is a useful arrow in the Chinese foreign policy quiver but should not be overestimated. Chinese culture tends toward exceptionalism rather than universality; i.e., many things about Chinese culture, in the Chinese view, are appropriate (or even intelligible) to Chinese alone. Moreover, China senses that its traditional low profile and attempts not to be seen as competing with the values and political systems of other countries are part of its attractiveness. The Chinese acknowledge both the limits of soft power and that China's reliance on soft power is in large measure due to the fact that China, in the near-term, lacks hard power.




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