Reflexions on Chinese Foreign Policy
A history of Chinese foreign policy in the modern era is remarkable for its consistency despite the convoluted changes in the world around them. From the Ming dynasty on, China maintained an isolationist view of the world, insisting that everything of value was already Chinese, and that no substantive contact with foreigners was necessary or desirable. It is only relatively recently, in the decades following the death of Mao Tse-Tung, that China is beginning to engage the world at large in a substantively different manner, and it is doing so only grudgingly, in its own perceived interests.
Throughout its ancient history, China has considered itself the centre of the world, or “All Under Heaven.” This attitude was regularly reinforced by the obvious superiority of Chinese thought, technology, and goods, relative to the surrounding cultures. A problem only arose when China began to encounter radically different nations that were not in any obvious way inferior, only different. China’s unwillingness, or inability, to abandon its arrogance and treat these modern states as equals was in large measure responsible for its disastrous wars in the 19th and 20th centuries, and to the fall of the last dynasty and first attempted democratic government.
When the emperor Taizu founded the Ming dynasty, a major shift occurred in the focus on Chinese civilisation. Having experienced foreign domination under the Mongols, the Chinese now looked to expand and develop their own power base. Taizu dramatically increased the power and prestige of the emperor, and the Ming emperors presided over a time of dynamic growth and expansion in nearly every sphere. Major works of engineering, such as the northward extension of the Grand Canal, the restoration of the Great Wall, and the construction of the Forbidden City, demonstrated the skill and ingenuity the Chinese had evolved by this time. Further, at this point in history, China was beyond doubt the world’s premier military power; the development of cannon and advanced shipbuilding allowed the Chinese unprecedented access to the world beyond its shores.
The Ming used this capability to devise a sophisticated tributary order, enrolling far-flung states in a system which asserted China’s supremacy in east Asia. It was also during this period that China fully absorbed the south-western provinces of Guizhou and Yunnan, choosing to settle large numbers of Han Chinese in this area, thus establishing a precedent for sinification of conquered territory that would persist into the Communist era (notably in Tibet and East Turkestan, called Xinjiang province).
Around the middle of the Ming dynasty, a fundamental shift occurred in Chinese thinking. Where previously the Chinese had welcomed contact with neighbouring states, confident in the superiority of China and the awe that they would engender in other cultures, the Chinese now turned their focus inward. This may well be a logical outgrowth of the arrogance inherent in China’s opinion of itself, but it was a disastrous turn nonetheless. Trade and exploration came to a virtual standstill and technological advances came at a far slower face; China soon lost the substantial lead it had previously gained over Europe. Only the tributary system remained intact, and China chose to deal with all newly-arrived foreign powers (such as the Portuguese) in this manner, rather than as equals. This method of “managing the barbarians” was to prove a fatal mistake when applied to the powerful states of Europe in the same way it had been used with the relatively weak states of south-east Asia and the central-Asian steppes.
When the Ming declined and fell to the Manchu conquerors who created the Qing dynasty, little changed at first. Determined to rule China according to Chinese custom (and thus establish legitimacy), the Qing were reluctant to review many policy positions established by their predecessors. As a result, China continued to fall behind Europe in technological and economic terms. This proved a near-fatal mistake when the British, already confident of their mastery of the world’s oceans, began to knock more forcefully at China’s doors. The so-called Opium Wars followed, which forced China to accept the foreign trade it had hitherto strictly limited, as well as the imposition of foreign legations in Beijing, which required China to treat the Western powers as equals. It was this demand of equality, or rather, the implication that China was now somehow inferior, that the Chinese found the most difficult to accept.
Being themselves foreign conquerors, the Manchus did make one major change in China’s foreign policy- they set out to dominate and incorporate as many of the states along China’s frontiers as possible. As a result, the Mongols, Uighurs, and Tibetans were defeated and brought under Chinese influence. Unlike the later situation under the Communists, however, the Qing allowed these regions a substantial degree of autonomy. These conquests, and the idea of Greater China, are critical in understanding the modern defence of the Tibetan occupation, for example.
Despite this expansion, the Qing remained essentially isolationist, and their repeated rebuffing of foreign emissaries finally sparked a series of disastrous wars from which the dynasty could not recover (a process begun with the first Opium War in 1839). Both the Europeans (the British, French, Russians, and Germans in particular) and the Japanese (formerly protégés of the Chinese) took advantage of China’s weakness to carve out large swaths of territory for themselves. These extraterritorial enclaves caused a tremendous amount of internal unrest, and a series of revolts (the massive Taiping and Boxer rebellions among them) further destabilised the Qing. Reform-minded officials in the administration responded with “Self-Strengthening,” which sought to marry Western technology and statecraft to Chinese culture. Ultimately, these half-measures only hurried the demise of imperial China by increasing the exposure of the intelligentsia to Western ideas and values.
When the Qing were finally overthrown by Yuan Shikai and the Republic of China founded, an opportunity existed for China to abandon both isolation and imperialism. By the time the Nationalists had replaced the dictatorial Yuan, the Western powers had agreed to dismantle their enclaves, relations had been normalised, and large portions of “Greater China” (such as Mongolia and Tibet) were permitted their independence. Whatever potential there existed for this incarnation of China was dealt a severe blow by Chiang Kai-shek’s abandonment of the republican ideals put forth by his mentor, Sun Yat-sen, and, more importantly, by the invasion of Manchuria by Japan in 1933. The Nationalists at first determined not to resist the Japanese, perhaps rightly understanding that they were not strong enough and that Manchuria was not essential to China’s future. However, resistance against foreign aggression was extremely important in attaining the respect of the populace; Chiang’s focus upon the Communists as his principal threat doomed his government, as the Communists were consistently better at organising the peasants and winning their hearts.
From the 1930s on, China’s future belonged to the Communists. From their bases in the countryside, they gradually spread Mao Tse-Tung’s version of Marxism-Leninism with its emphasis on the empowerment of the peasantry and their glorious rôle in the China he envisioned. Mao was, in many ways, that most dangerous of men in power- an idealist. His unshakeable commitment to the value of his own ideas led to his virtual deification by the Chinese peasantry, and to the unquestioning obedience that caused so much tragedy in the period between his victory in the Civil War in 1949 and his death in 1976.
From a foreign policy standpoint, the Communist victory signalled a shift in the regional balance of power and in the perception of China, but also in many ways seemed to look back to Qing dynasty. Like the Qing, the Communists were territorially aggressive and culturally isolationist; unlike the Qing, the Communists embraced the modern world and its industrial emphasis, giving them the muscle to become a world power. However, it was not until Mao’s death that a truly fundamental shift took place, perhaps the first major change in China’s approach to international relation in the modern age.
Under the Communists, the Chinese government turned its back on the world, insisting upon the development of internal self-sufficiency; by the 1950s, even the relationship with the Soviet Union was on the rocks, and China was virtually without allies in the world (of the Eastern Bloc states, only Albania aligned with China over the USSR). Part of this isolation was imposed from outside, with the United States and Europe long withholding recognition of the Beijing government. However, Mao’s policies would have served to drive a wedge between China and the rest of the world even without the spectre of world Communist revolution, which at that time still clouded Western political thought.
Accompanying this shift inward was the development of a new national identity for the Chinese people. The Communists worked to change the definition of “Chinese,” applying it to all of the peoples living within the borders of the former Qing empire. This position justified the invasion and occupation of Tibet, just one year after India’s achieving independence from the United Kingdom removed the possibility of easy foreign intervention (Tibet had negotiated a defence agreement with the UK upon declaring statehood). The Communists swiftly consolidated their positions in Tibet and in East Turkestan (Xinjiang), encouraging the immigration of large numbers of Han Chinese in what is effectively a policy of colonisation. This immigration, the destruction of the Tibetan religious civilisation, and the murder of one-quarter of the population over the last half-century, remain major points of contention between the Beijing government and the nations and peoples of the West. Even formerly culturally-isolated areas such as Manchuria were opened up to Han settlement, resulting in a devastation of Manchu cultural identity. Out of all of the former Qing territories, only Outer Mongolia avoided this fate, having by this time become a satellite of the Soviet Union.
China has also engaged in frequent bullying and has been involved in several small border wars over pieces of territory disputed with neighbouring states. Each of these conflicts has erupted over seemingly insignificant amounts of territory, but Beijing’s hard-line stance on these issues sent a clear signal to the world that China was demanding respect as a great power, and would not be content to be denied what it saw as its due. Having spent centuries falling behind the West, China was now determined to embrace just enough of the new world order wrought by the Western imperialist powers to attain a similar position of respect for itself.
The border war with the Soviet Union, wherein China reneged on treaties it had signed accepting the Qing borders, had the potential to explode into a much wider, even nuclear war. The 1962 border war with India has never seen adequately resolved, and ended with each nation controlling territory claimed by the other; with both nations now in possession of nuclear weapons, and India harbouring the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile, tensions have never fully eased and the potential for another flare-up remains. China is currently involved in a number of disputes in the South China Sea over tiny islands and oil and gas fields on the sea bed. Indonesia disputes the Chinese seizure and occupation of the Spratly Islands and the gas fields of Sarawak. Vietnam disputes Chinese control of the Parcel Islands. The Philippines and China have engaged in several gunboat battles over control of oil and gas fields off of the Spratly Islands.
Beyond a doubt, the most contentious of China’s current border conflicts involves the island of Taiwan. For centuries Taiwan has been within the Chinese sphere (the indigenous peoples make up only a tiny minority of the population), and China has disputed control of the island since 1949 when the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek retreated to the island at the end of the Chinese Civil War. Despite the finality of the Nationalists’s defeat, this conflict has, technically speaking, never ended, with each government claiming to be the legitimate ruler of China proper.
This stand-off, and the massive military build-up on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, has enormous potential to explode into a wider conflict, possibly involving the United States and Japan. The population of Taiwan overwhelming opposes reunification with China under the Communist régime, and a growing number favour separation regardless of the government on the mainland. The simple fact is that after half a century of divorce from the mainland, and a half century of Japanese domination before that, the people of Taiwan no longer think of themselves as Chinese in the same sense. For its part, the Beijing government has consistently insisted that Taiwan is a rebellious province of China, and has committed to using force to recover it were it ever to formally declare itself independent (rather than, as is the case to-day, simply maintaining the status of civil war and two Chinese governments). Over the years, China has come to grudgingly accept Taiwan’s effective independence, mostly due to the presence of the US Seventh Fleet (based in Yokosuka, Japan, and frequently patrolling the waters around Taiwan), and due to the economically-advantageous trade relationships that has developed between Taiwan and the mainland. A vigorous capitalist economy has given the Taiwanese a surplus of cash to invest, and most of this makes its way into China.
China’s commitment to use force, however, and the presence of large numbers of missiles targeting Taiwan, have led many on the island to call more forcefully for full independence. If this call is successful, it will almost certainly lead to war, as China will be unwilling, or unable, to back down on its previous positions, no matter the cost. This presents the most significant foreign policy issue affecting China to-day, and is of critical interest in the West, in that it pits our economic interest in both sides (though greater now on the mainland) with our publicly-stated commitments to democracy and self-determination. This last, the principle of self-determination, originally formulated by Woodrow Wilson for the Versailles Treaty, has been an official (though frequently unenforced) position of the US government since the ratification of the United Nations’s Declaration on Human Rights in 1970, and is properly applicable in this situation, however contentious the issue may be.
Aside from Taiwan, four other issues remain important from a foreign policy perspective. One is Tibet, discussed above. Another is Xinjiang, mentioned briefly above. Its importance continues to grow following the US “war on terror” and the Bush administration’s strenuous efforts to recruit China as an ally in its crusade. Growing unrest and Islamic terrorism in Xinjiang are increasingly bringing Beijing and the US together, and it remains to be seen what, if any, effect this growing collaboration will have on the independence movements of East Turkestan.
A third issue is that of North Korea, long a Soviet satellite and under strong Chinese influence to-day. North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and medium-range ballistic missiles, which they have pursued with the ostensible goal of deterring foreign (e.g., US) intervention on the Korean peninsula, present a major security threat to Japan, and could lead to their abandoning the constitutional clause that restricts their military to defensive operations. The fact that China has such enormous influence in North Korea has not gone unexploited, as Beijing has manoeuvred its way into the negotiations with Pyongyang; however, it could be argued that they have avoided applying much pressure, and are seeking to exploit both sides for some perceived gain in prestige.
The final, and most important, area of Chinese foreign policy is actually an economic one; China’s engagement with the West in the post-Mao years presents the most significant departure from the historical model. Seeking to take the best of the West, and yet retain maintain tight Party control, the Communist government is walking a tightrope between two extremes. On the one hand, China’s admission into the World Trade Organisation, and the permanent normalisation of trade relations with the US, demonstrates the lengths that the West will go in tolerating China’s human rights record and lack of democratic reforms for economic reasons. On the other, this constructive engagement, and the exchange of ideas between the youth of China and the West, will almost certainly lead to the eventual collapse of the Party and a new path for China. The only real question is, where will they choose to go from here?