China Table of Contents

Understanding the origins and forces shaping China's foreign policy provides a framework in which to view both the changes and the continuities in Chinese foreign policy from 1949 to the late 1980s. The origins of China's foreign policy can be found in its size and population, historical legacy, worldview, nationalism, and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. These factors have combined with China's economic and military capabilities, governmental structure, and decision-making processes to make certain foreign policy goals prominent: security, sovereignty and independence, territorial integrity and reunification, and economic development.

Historical Legacy and Worldview

China's long and rich history as the world's oldest continuous civilization has affected Chinese foreign relations in various ways. For centuries the Chinese empire enjoyed basically unchallenged greatness and self-sufficiency. China saw itself as the cultural center of the universe, a view reflected in the concept of the Middle Kingdom (Zhongguo, the Chinese word for China). For the most part, it viewed non-Chinese peoples as uncivilized barbarians. Although China was occasionally overrun and ruled by these "barbarians," as during the Yuan (1279- 1368) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the non-Chinese usually retained enough Chinese institutions to maintain a continuity of tradition. Because the Chinese emperor was considered the ruler of all mankind by virtue of his innate superiority, relations with other states or entities were tributary, rather than state-to-state relations between equals. Traditionally, there was no equivalent of a foreign ministry; foreign relations included such activities as tributary missions to the emperor made by countries seeking trade with China and Chinese military expeditions against neighboring barbarians to keep them outside China's borders. The first Europeans who sought trade with China, beginning in the sixteenth century, were received as tributary missions and had to conform to the formalities and rituals of the tribute system at the Chinese court. China's view of itself as the undisputed center of civilization--a phenomenon called sinocentrism--remained basically unchanged until the nineteenth century, when the Qing dynasty began to deteriorate under Western pressure.

A traditional concept related to China's view of itself as the Middle Kingdom that continues to have relevance is the idea of "using barbarians to control barbarians." In modern times, this practice has taken the form of using relations with one foreign power as a counterweight to relations with another. Two examples are China's policy of "leaning to one side" in the Sino-Soviet alliance of the 1950s for support against the United States and Beijing's rapprochement with the United States in the 1970s to counteract the Soviet threat China perceived at the time. China's strong desire for sovereignty and independence of action, however, seems to have made Chinese alliances or quasi-alliances shortlived .

Another effect of China's historical legacy is its tendency toward isolationism and an ambivalence about opening up to the outside world. In imperial times, China's foreign relations varied from dynasty to dynasty--from cosmopolitan periods like the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907) to isolationist periods such as the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when few foreigners were allowed in the country. Overall, the sinocentric worldview and China's history of centuries of self-sufficiency favored isolation, which contributed to China's difficulty when confronted by expansionist Western powers in the nineteenth century. The debate over self-reliance and possible corruption by foreign influences or opening up to the outside world in order to modernize more quickly has continued for over a century and was still an issue in the late 1980s.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress