Does China have a strategic outlook when it deals with the outside world? That has always been the assumption among some in the analyst and diplomatic community. Observers from Hugh White in Australia to Henry Kissinger in the United States write as though Chinese foreign policymakers have an encoded, shared idea of where they are all heading and what they want from the world around them. From issues like the South and East China Sea, to China in the Arctic and Antarctica, there is some overarching narrative that China is corporately driving for. The task for the outside world is to uncover this and then respond to it.
The People’s Republic of China has existed for long enough now to see whether history bears out this idea of some strategic coherent vision. The problem until recently was that there has been no overview which looked at the full sweep of Chinese engagement with the rest of the world over this period to see what sort of patterns can be divined. Now, with the publication of John Garver’s China’s Quest, the story of China’s diplomacy since 1949 is finally contained in a single, albeit lengthy, volume.
There are two aspects of this history that are worth considering today. The world (and that largely means the United States and its allies, and, in the early days, the USSR) certainly often got China wrong. But the converse of this is that China itself all too often also got the world wrong. Under Mao, this was partially excusable because of the isolation of its policymaking elites internationally. But even with policy over a so-called political ally like North Vietnam in the 1960s, the mindset of the relatively new Communist leaders in Beijing was remarkably old fashioned. Showering equipment, support, and largesse on the Hanoi regime as it struggled to annex the South in the late 1960s led not to a new client state in the 1970s as Chinese leaders evidently hoped, but an even more resentful, difficult neighbor. China’s return for its solidarity four decades ago is a unified Vietnam today, one which achieved this with huge logistical, military, and practical support from the PRC, now enjoying harmonious relations with its greatest enemy at the time, the United States – but, even more gallingly, robustly contesting China’s claims in the South China Sea. So much for reaping the long term rewards of diplomatic investment, at least for this case.
The case of Hong Kong, too, has resonance today for the way it shows Chinese limitations and lack of ability in reading their opponents. After initial, very brief attempts to extend its leases on the territory, the U.K. largely focused on getting a handover deal which secured what most mattered to it – preservation of its commercial interests in the city. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, however, the Beijing elite became obsessed by fears of containment and peaceful evolution being urged on them by outsiders, and suspected that the British wanted to use Hong Kong as one means of promoting this arousal of instability. In hindsight, it is pretty clear that the Chinese fundamentally misunderstood the U.K.’s priorities.
Decades on, and even during the Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong in 2014, the temptation for Beijing to continue to see the foreign hand stirring up subversion is still strong. The misunderstanding continues. Sun Tzu 2,500 years ago said one should know one’s enemies. It is clear that all too often, China’s leaders simply haven’t followed his wise advice. They have fought with their imagined enemies – not the real ones facing them in the actual world.
This is the second strong message we get from reviewing Chinese diplomatic history over the last 60 years. If Beijing’s foreign policy was strategic, and did pursue tangible, long term aims, even though they were never written down anywhere, it has had, at best, a very patchy record of success. In 1950 China’s priority under the new Communist government was to settle the issue of Taiwan. North Korea’s invasion of the South, and the distraction that offered, destroyed the best chance China ever had to solve this issue. Six decades on, and its policy towards North Korea is still beset by indecision – at least, that’s how it looks from the outside. Chinese policy toward Pakistan, largely to help it spoil India’s regional role, resulted in another nuclearized, unstable neighbor, something hardly in China’s interests.
With the USSR, it is now clear, the Chinese weakened themselves by resolutely adopting the one thing that was least to their benefit, but which they insisted on taking from their Communist partner – the failed economic blueprint from the Stalin era, which even Stalin quickly repudiated. If Moscow had wanted to pursue a strategy of deliberately weakening China, this means would have come top of the list. It saddled the country with a failed economic model for three decades. As it was, even the USSR counseled China to change. China’s worst enemy in this case was itself, not the USSR.
Under Mao, and until now, Chinese foreign policy has been dressed up in neat stories and pithy generic statements. Core interests, peaceful rise, non-interference — all are part of the grammar of Chinese diplomacy in the 21st century. They imply some overarching narrative logic. And yet history shows something more prosaic: that Chinese foreign policymakers were often woefully ignorant, and deliberately dismissive, about the outside world, that their strategies failed as often as they succeeded, sometimes at terrible cost to China, and that as often as not Chinese foreign policy negotiation tactics were tough not because of intelligent design, but because no one dared to make tactical moves to compromise, deal with the world in a more nuanced way, and achieve something real rather than the rhetoric of grand sounding strategic goals.
Let’s hope that trend is changing, and that the Chinese leaders of today and into the future see the world outside a bit more as the scrappy place it is, rather than the home of evil, narrow, and resolute ill intent toward China they often act like they want it to be.