China's foreign policy

Published : Aug 01, 2003 00:00 IST

Mao's China & the Cold War by Chen Jian; the University of North Carolina Press; pages 400; $49.95 (cloth), $19.95 (paperback)

China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975 by Qiang Zhai; the University of North Carolina Press; pages 304; $19.95.

AT the inauguration of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Zhou Enlai said that in a world where classes continue to exist, the state mechanism is a tool for class struggle. Two Chinese scholars wrote in a review of his Selected Works that as a function of the state mechanism, diplomacy like the military is a tool to protect the interests of the state. It was aptly entitled "An ideological Monument to New China's Diplomacy".

Two decades after its establishment, the People's Republic of China began to discard the ideological component of its foreign policy. Both these books emphasise the primacy of ideology. But realpolitik lingers not far beneath the surface.

Though India's is a far more open society, on some matters China has been far more open in giving access to archives. Since the mid-1980s a large quantity of fresh and significant historical material, including party documents, leaders' memoirs and oral histories have been made available to scholars. Prof. Chen Jian's "main objectives, concerning three interlocking themes, are to comprehend China's position in the Cold War; to (re)interpret the role ideology played during the period; and to assess Mao's revolution and to analyse Mao's China's patterns of external behaviour."

He insists that while initially ideology united China and the Soviet Union, later it was ideology itself that rent them apart. Unlike India, China did not stand on the periphery of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. It enjoyed a crucial leverage between them. Stalin was anxious to uphold the status quo. Mao sought to alter it radically. "Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Beijing's foreign policy consistently demonstrated a strong ideological colour."

While the role of ideology cannot be "overlooked", nor can the impact of state interests. Mao felt it acutely during his long stay in Moscow in the early 1950s to negotiate a Treaty with Stalin. It was less equal than he would have liked. Khrushchev's decision to cancel the agreement of October 15, 1957, on help in the nuclear field was a crucial event, which led inevitably to the rift in 1959.

Mao was not only the chief but the sole architect of China's foreign policy. In his mind domestic and foreign policies were interrelated. He manipulated international crises for the ends of domestic politics. "When tension between Mao and other members of the Communist elite, as well as between the Communist regime and China's ordinary people, intensified following the failure of the Great Leap Forward, a revolutionary foreign policy further served as an effective - and probably the only available - way through which Mao could enhance both his authority and the legitimacy of his continuous revolution.

"The role of revolutionary foreign policy in Mao's continuous revolution must be understood in the context of the Chinese people's "victim mentality" and its connections to the age-old Central Kingdom concept so important in China's history and culture". Zhou Enlai was "more a policy carrier than policy-maker".

Mao was continuously oppressed by a feeling of insecurity. One who was out to overturn the world order inescapably made enemies. "The more Mao and his comrades stressed the significance of the Chinese revolution, the less secure they would feel in (the) face of perceived threats from the outside world. Mao made this insecurity more serious when be highlighted international tension and treated it as a useful tool for domestic mobilisation. Through anti-foreign-imperialist propaganda, Mao and his comrades used foreign threats to mobilise the Chinese masses. This propaganda, in turn, would inevitably cause a deepening sense of insecurity on the part of Mao and his comrades."

In the author's view Mao's China was not an expansionist power. "While Mao and his comrades were never shy about using force in pursuing China's foreign policy goals, what they hoped to achieve was not the expansion of China's political and military control of foreign territory or resources - which was, for Mao and his comrades, too inferior an aim - but, rather, the spread of their influence to other `hearts and minds' around the world."

These theses are sought to be established by citing a mass of new material covering the Maoist era right until 1972 when the entente with the U.S. was established to the dismay of both Moscow and Hanoi.

Prof. Chen Jian's policy prescriptions are of particular interest to us. "China's hope of emerging from the shadow of the Cold War lies in the fate of the ongoing reform and opening (derevolutionisation) process - only with its success will China become a genuine "insider" of the international community and consistently play the role as a coordinator and promoter of regional and global peace and stability... ." He advises the U.S. "to understand China's perspectives and problems, under no circumstances should a `second Cold War' be waged against China."

"In order for China to play a stabilising role in the Asia-Pacific and global affairs, the international regimes should reform themselves by incorporating China's specific concerns and values."

Prof. Qiang Zhai projects a different China vis-a-vis Vietnam, one which pursued both ideology and realpolitik initially and later realpolitik mostly. Hanoi was caught between Moscow and Beijing. Ho Chi Minh went to China on August 7, 1960 to promote unity between the two but failed.

The author has relied on recently released archival sources and other material to write a lucid, fascinating account of big power politics. New Delhi would not dream of releasing any archival material for this period or even from 1947-50.

The book establishes, as John Lewis Gaddis summarises, "that China's military assistance was critical to the Viet Minh in their war against the French prior to the Geneva settlement of 1954... . That the Russians and the Chinese did, ... force the Viet Minh to accept the 1954 division of the country but that the Chinese later regretted this, a sentiment that contributed both to the Sino-Soviet split and to Beijing's support for the North Vietnamese escalation of the war against South Vietnam and the Americans in the early 1960s."

China sent some 320,000 support troops to North Vietnam during the 1965-68 period. Over a thousand of them were killed there. Mao was prepared to fight the Americans directly had they attempted a ground invasion of North Vietnam.

Yet, North Vietnam failed to consult China when it began negotiations with the Americans in 1968. Chinese influence over North Vietnam diminished from that point, while that of the Soviet Union grew.

The Chinese had great difficulty in explaining Nixon's 1972 Beijing visit to North Vietnam. They tried to compensate by stepping up military supplies to Hanoi during the final stages of the ceasefire negotiations. Despite his rapprochement with the U.S., Mao strongly supported the coming to power of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1975. The roots of the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 lie in what we can now see to have been the fragmentation of the Sino-Vietnamese alliance during the late 1960s and the early 1970s.<90>

At the Geneva Conference in 1954 Zhou Enlai was determined to ensure that Laos and Cambodia were free from Vietnam's influence. "During the Cambodian crisis of 1970, Beijing pursued a two-track policy of backing Sihanouk and exploring possible cooperation with Lon Noi in hopes of preserving China's influence in the country. In the last two years of the war, while continuing to assist the DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam] in its final drive to unify Vietnam, Beijing also increased aid to the anti-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge in order to contain the expansion of Hanoi's influence in Cambodia."

From the late 1960s, Vietnam moved closer to Moscow, which became its "envoy" of the West, and vice versa. "Chinese leaders, however, were jealous of this Soviet role in Vietnam. They treated Vietnam as a pawn in their strategy against Moscow."

Prof. Qiang Zhai pays a well-deserved tribute to Vietnam: "While policymakers in Hanoi constantly feared being betrayed by their big allies, they were not submissive puppets of Beijing or Moscow. In fact, they were highly self-willed and independent actors who were able to make their own strategic choices, particularly during the Second Vietnam War, often without consulting China or the Soviet Union."

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