Foreign Relations

China Table of Contents

IN THE 1980s CHINA pursued an independent foreign policy, formally disavowing too close a relationship with either the United States or the Soviet Union. The stated goals of this policy were safeguarding world peace, opposing all forms of hegemony, and achieving economic modernization at home. Chinese statements repeatedly emphasized the interrelation among these goals. In other words, China needed a peaceful international environment so that adequate resources could be devoted to its ambitious development plans for the rest of the twentieth century. The goal of economic modernization was a driving force behind China's increasingly active participation in world affairs, exemplified by its policy of opening up to the outside world, which greatly expanded Chinese economic relations with foreign countries. As part of what it called an "independent foreign policy of peace," Beijing had joined numerous international organizations, and it maintained diplomatic relations with more nations than at any time since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. By mid- 1987, China had diplomatic relations with 133 nations, and--in contrast with earlier periods--was willing to interact with governments of different social systems or ideologies on a basis of peaceful coexistence and mutual respect.

Although Chinese foreign policy since 1949 has had distinctive characteristics, the forces that shape Beijing's foreign policy and many of its overall goals have been similar to those of other nations. China has sought to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity and to achieve independence of action, while interacting with both more powerful and less powerful countries. As with most other nations, Beijing's foreign relations have been conditioned by its historical experiences, nationalism and ideology, and the worldview of its leaders, as well as by the governmental structure and decision-making process. At times China's domestic policies have had wide-ranging ramifications for its foreign policy formulation.

Another characteristic Chinese foreign policy has had in common with that of many other countries is that the actual conduct of foreign relations sometimes has been at odds with official policy. Beijing's stress on ideology and principles in its official statements at times makes the contrast between statements and actions particularly noticeable. In addition, a nation's leaders must often make decisions in reaction to events and circumstances, rather than simply formulating a rational foreign policy based on their goals. The need to react to what has happened or what may happen adds an element of unpredictability to foreign policy decision making, as has been the case at several crucial junctures in Chinese foreign relation since 1949.

In addition to the aspects of foreign policy formulation and implementation that China has in common with other countries, China's foreign policy from 1949 to the late 1980s has had these characteristics: contrast between practicality and adherence to principles; fluctuation between militancy and peacefulness; tension between self-reliance and dependence on others; and contrast between China's actual and potential capabilities. These contradictory characteristics have created a confusing picture of Chinese foreign policy: is Chinese foreign policy basically pragmatic or primarily based on principles and ideology? Is China peace-loving or intent on fomenting world revolution? Is China's ultimate goal to be self-sufficient or economically interdependent with the rest of the world? And is China basically a poor, developing country that is at most a regional power or actually a nascent economic and military giant deserving of superpower status?

The response to these questions is that since 1949 Chinese foreign policy has reflected all of these contrasting features. Beijing has emphasized principles and ideology above everything else in foreign relations, especially during the 1950s and 1960s, but Chinese leaders have also shown a practical side that gave them the flexibility to change policies, sometimes drastically, when they deemed it in China's best interest. One of the most dramatic changes was the shift from an alliance with the Soviet Union against the United States and Japan in the 1950s to an explicitly anti-Soviet policy and rapprochement with Japan and the United States in the 1970s. Since 1949 Chinese foreign policy has fluctuated between periods of militancy, for example during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when China called for worldwide revolution, and periods when Beijing has been a chief proponent of peaceful coexistence among nations, such as during the mid-1950s and again during the 1980s. How self-reliant or dependent on others China should become in order to modernize has been a constant dilemma in Chinese policy since the nineteenth century. As this policy fluctuated, Chinese foreign relations have alternated between a tendency toward isolation and periods of openness to foreign assistance and influence. Finally, the contradiction between China's actual capabilities since 1949 and its perceived potential has been another salient and distinctive feature of its foreign relations. China's tremendous size, population, natural resources, military strength, and sense of history have placed it in the unusual position of being a poor, developing country that has often been treated as a major global power having a special relationship with the United States and the Soviet Union.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress