Throughout History, China and her foreign policy has been the focus of much controversy and debate in the fields of History and International Relations. The size, geographical position, culture and politics of China make it, and have made it one of the most important actors in regional and international affairs. The aims and nature of Chinese foreign policy have been through a number of important changes in the twentieth century.
This essay will examine the principles of Chinese Foreign Policy after the death of leader Mao Tse Tung and will discuss the importance economics has on the formulation of post Mao foreign Policy. This essay will first discuss the principle aims and practises of Chinese foreign policy under Mao as a basis to compare the post Mao characteristics. The essay will then examine the major aspects of China’s foreign policy that occurred during and after Mao’s leadership in terms of the relations with the west, relations with the Soviet bloc, relations with third world revolutionary groups and the so called opposition to hegemonism. Through studying these factors the essay will examine the importance of economic factors in china’s foreign policy since Mao. As an example of how China works in the international system the essay will discuss the relations modern China has with its major neighbours in terms of military, political and, importantly, economic factors.
In a discussion of post Mao Chinese foreign policy it is important to understand the foreign policy during the leadership of Mao Tse Tung. It is first important to note that Mao’s handling of Chinese foreign policy was not a single phase in itself and did not follow a single characteristic and it is also important to note that many principles of current Sino-foreign relations stem back to Mao. In 1949 after decades of civil war and political unrest the Chinese Communist party founded the “Peoples Republic of China”. Mao Tse Tung, the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party was now the political leader of over a billion Chinese people. Under Mao major social and internal changes were undertaken alongside a noticeable change in the relations with outsiders.
The first major change was the five-year plan, between 1952 and 1957, during these years China opened up to a foreign state, the Soviet Union, in a way never before seen in China (1, pp47). This can be analysed as part of Mao’s “let foreign things serve China”(1,pp47) attitude, an attitude that, if vague, encouraged the Chinese to make a distinction between the damaging and the helpful elements of foreign influences. This period also saw Mao introducing the five principles of peaceful coexistence, principles that, at least publicly would become the backbone to the overt actions of China’s foreign relations.
These principles, suggested by premier Zhou Enlai, claim to base China relations on mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence (8). The validity of these principles is obviously in question and it would seem that many could be described as being contradictory to China’s practice of foreign policy especially during the Cold War. China’s threatening stance over Taiwan, the invasion of Tibet and support for North Korea during the Korean war during this period can be argued to contradict the claims made by the five principles.
China’s relations with the two major cold war super-powers were often pivotal in Chinese decision-making under Mao. It seemed that during the early cold war years, China began to emerge from her self-imposed exile as it opened up to the Soviet Union. The later Maoist era however also saw a turn away from Soviet domination during the early to mid sixties partly due to what the Chinese often refer to as “Soviet Chauvinism”(6,Liu Huaqiu article) and an approach to what can be called the “Period of Cooperation” (2,pp280) with America.
One of China’s major advantages during the Cold War was the ability to choose between the two super-powers of the era. The build up of both Chinese and soviet troops on the border “(6, Liu Huaqiu article), the general rise in tensions between the two powers over the interference of Soviet facilitators helping develop Chinese industry may have contributed to Mao’s movement, politically, toward the US. US-Sino relations were obviously damaged due to the involvement of Chinese “volunteers” in the Korean War. The first stepping-stone in this new cooperation and the smoothing of post Korea relations was the famous Shanghai Communiquï¿½ of 1971-2 (2,pp280) involving American a visit to the Peoples Republic of China by President Richard Nixon and a meeting with Chairman Mao.
It is difficult to examine in detail the complex elements of Mao’s foreign policy in the limited space this essay allows. However, it is important not to lay to much focus on China’s relations with the two super powers. Other elements lay at the heart of Mao’s foreign policies, elements that also changed through his years of leadership. His economic policy, originally based on the Marxist/Soviet principles of state controlled commerce began to reform, at least in the final Mao years, towards a more free market based economy. Political ties two Marxist revolutionary groups in third world countries also played a major role in Mao’s foreign policy making. Mao, not believing in a two-bloc world or a one bloc revolution, made major contributions to numerous third world Marxist revolutionaries as part of what Mao saw, at least publicly, as a way of achieving global revolution through the global working class (1 pp94-95).
On a more power political level it could be argued that if these revolutions were successful China could develop allies in important places. Korea is an example of Marxist revolution supported by the Chinese in a strategically important country (7). Mao’s foreign policy cannot be described in a single word. His unstable relations with the US and USSR, the changes he made in the economy make understanding the drive behind Mao’s foreign policy challenging. It can be argued that the erratic foreign policy of Mao was a symptom of the erratic domestic, the failing Cultural Revolution and the great leap forward may have forced Mao to change policy. The importance of understanding the legacy Mao left at his death to future Chinese administrations is not to be underestimated when studying post Mao foreign policy.
Despite the major changes in the nature of Chinese foreign policy Mao’s legacy and influence has in no way been ignored and it is important to first examine the affect of Mao’s policies on China’s foreign policy after his death. The public face of Chinese foreign policy still emphasise Mao’s so called “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” as being the centre of its actions (6). Despite continued evidence of China’s ignorance of the policy the public face of China on the international scene will often claim to be following these principles. Mao also initiated the cooperation with the United States that has, even if the relationship has sometimes been strained, continued as a major party of Chinese foreign relations. Mao also influenced the Chinese continued stance of vigilance towards the other cold war super power the USSR (3, pp201). Despite the changes that this essay shall now analyse the examples given suggest that Mao’s influence was not forgotten in the formulation of cold war and modern foreign policy.
In discussing post Mao foreign policy it is important to understand the importance of economic development in the new era of western cooperation. Economic development also gives an interesting starting point to the discussion of the importance of economics in Chinese Foreign Policy after Mao. There were many major attempts to both open and develop china economically by the new more moderate post Mao regime. The “Open Door” policy initiated by Mao was, after his death, intensified and relations with the West and especially the US carried out through businessmen now allowed into the once anti-capitalist environment (1,pp125).
This new openness also coincided with internal economic reform. In 1978, the new chairman, Deng Xiaoping, introduced the “Four Modernisations”, a way of developing the country through modernising elements of agriculture, industry, national defence and science and technology as part of a ten-year plan. Deng also began the introduction and proliferation of China’s free enterprise economy (9). These economic development changes had a radical effect on China’s foreign policy. No longer an isolated communist country China began to move toward an economy base and even reliant on western capitalist systems (9,2,). This can be seen as evidence for the view that China’s economic health was gradually being placed at the forefront of her foreign policy and her position in the international system.
China’s relations with the Western and economically developed nations, especially the US and Japan provides interesting perspective when analysing the changes nature of china’s foreign policy after Mao. As previously discussed the “Open Door” policy played a major role in the development of improved, or at least cooperative relations with the western world. One of the major characteristics of post Mao foreign policy was the continued hatred of the USSR and, as previously noted, the move toward the US as its main source of political and economic support. Towards the end of the 1970s the US even quietly aided China militarily against the soviets. During this period the military support was covert and originally involved eaves dropping equipment for intelligence gathering. However the military support became more public as the USSR’s war in Afghanistan began to escalate with America aiding the Chinese with no lethal and logistical support for defence against possible Soviet attacks (2, pp 202).
This military cooperation was could be used as evidence for suggesting the idea that the view “my enemies enemy is my friend” was the basis of Sino-US relations. However, evidence suggests that economics could be described as being at the centre of China’s relations with the developed world. As the cold war dragged on china began to turn more and more to the west for infrastructure development purchasing Nuclear reactors and factories. The new relationship with he west was not only beneficial to China, oil companies, such as BP and EXXON, were able to mine China’s oil reserves (2,pp203).
This new economically charged relationship continued through out the later years of the cold war. Despite some obvious stumbling blocks, such as Tiananmen Square, the relationship with the west has, at least privately, flourished even if publicly western leader denounce China’s political system (6,7). China’s relationship with the west was not, as was originally expected (1, pp237-247), significantly changed by the ending of the Cold War. Despite some further stumbling blocks and diplomatic incidents, such as the collision of a US spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet in April 2001, and the continuation of sanctions China has become more and more reliant on the US. Ignoring its claims of opposing hegemonism China’s economic reliance on the western powers looks set to intensify. A way of simplifying the Chinese relation to the west could be done through describing it as a publicly strained and privately flourishing especially in the light of the events of September 11th.
One of the major political changes in the post Mao era is the changing nature of China’s relations with the Third World. Under Mao, China often saw the third world as its main source of economic and political support and also considered the third world as being china’s main allies in combating US and Soviet attempts at hegemonism (1,pp234), (6). Mao, who considered China to be a leader of the third world and, as previously stated, also saw the third world as the backbone to a world revolution. After the death of Mao China’s political and economic support began to move from the third world to the US and Western Europe. There major change in the relations with the third world was the removal of support for Marxist revolutionaries and a turn away from the world revolutionary principles of Mao.
However, the perceived importance of the third world was not completely from foreign policy decision makers. The third world, in the eyes of the Chinese, was considered to be the priority target for the USSR to spread the Soviet “hegemony” (1,pp234-236)(5,pp181-183)(6). This could be the reason behind China attempts to remove soviet influence from third world neighbours. The successful invasion of the third world country Cambodia (1978) and the unsuccessful invasion of Vietnam (1979) could be analysed as examples of these Chinese attempts to remove soviet influence. China’s involvement with the third world began to take a new form in the late eighties and toward the end of the cold war. Diplomatic ties with Africa especially were rebooted.
Many argue that this was due to the sanctions imposed by the west in reaction to the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 (5,pp183). Despite China’s declination to join major third world organisations, China has joined with numerous third world countries such as Singapore to create a third world “immunity” from super power influence and supports the proposal of a “New Economic Order” developed by other third world states (5,pp183). So as far as China’s relations with third world nations can be analysed they have gone through a major change since Mao’s death and seem to be, not surprisingly, rooted in economic necessity rather than ideological or political will.
To conclude this essay there is considerable evidence to suggest that Mao’s death, in September 1976, had a dramatic affect on China’s domestic situation and an even more important affect on China’s relations with the International System and the her foreign policy decision making. China’s foreign policy has, since Mao, been more and more influenced by economic factors. It is arguably possible to connect most major aspects of change since Mao to the Chinese government’s will to economically develop the country with political and ideological aspects such as the global revolution, military security and opposition hegemonism being placed either at a lower priority or interlinked with Economic Foreign Policy.
Even if not directly economic it could easily be argued that most changes have at least an indirect affect on the economic growth of China and that these changes have been done for the China’s economic security. As china moves into the 21st century it appears that on a political level the regime has begun, especially since the September 11th terrorist attacks on America, to move toward a more interdependent relationship with the west. It seems apparent however that the soothing of relations with western power, despite the political and moralist claim, will be, as before, based more on the economic well being of China.
1: M. Yahunda, China’s Foreign Policy after Mao, Macmillan, 1983, Hong Kong
2: J. B. Starr, Understanding China (2nd Edition), Profile Books, 2001, US
3: E. E. Moise, Modern China (2nd edition), Longman, 1994, UK
4: T. Siach, Government and politics of China, Plagrave, 2001, New York US
5: Chien-Min Chao, B.J. Dickson, Remaking the Chinese State, Rutledge, 2001, London (UK)
6: Chinese Embassy Web site:
7: Chinese Foreign Policy, Article http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/china/19990914A128.html
8: Principles of Chinese Foreign Policy
9: After Mao and Through the 1980s, May 9, 2000