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70 Years of China’s Diplomacy: From Infancy to Maturity

2019-09-29 13:04:00 Source:China Today Author:By ZHANG LILI
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ON October 1, 2019, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) ushers in the 70th anniversary of its founding. Over the past 70 years, the PRC has developed from the state of poverty and emptiness in 1949 to being the second largest economy in the world which is flourishing with a strong national identity. The great achievements that have been made are mainly the results of the persistent hard work of Chinese people. At the same time, China has adhered to a foreign policy of resolutely defending its national sovereignty and fundamental interests, maintaining a sound national development environment, and continuously contributing to world peace.


1949-1978: Safeguarding Independence


October 1, 1949 witnessed the founding ceremony of the PRC held in Beijing. Mao Zedong, chairman of the Central People’s Government, solemnly declared to the world that “the Chinese people have stood up.” Having been oppressed by colonialism and imperialism since 1840, the old China had no independent policies. Therefore, the PRC, right at the beginning of handling its international relations, was determined to fundamentally change the humiliating way in which the late Qing government and the Republic of China government had conducted diplomacy.

 At the 26th United Nations General Assembly on October 25, 1971, the People’s Republic of China regains its legitimate seat in the UN by an overwhelming majority by vote. Qiao Guanhua, head of the Chinese delegation to the UN conference, and Huang Hua, deputy head, share a hearty laugh.


The new China first of all took a diplomatic path to peace, and implemented “three major policies” – completely breaking with the old Chinese government’s diplomacy, eliminating the remaining imperialist and colonial forces, and firmly standing on the side of the socialist camp and the peace-loving people of the world. An independent diplomatic strategy was accordingly established.


The PRC was founded at the beginning of the Cold War, arousing panic and hostility in the imperialist camp headed by the U.S., which adopted a foreign policy of containment and hostility towards China, refusing to give recognition to the PRC. Nevertheless, since it represented world justice, the new China quickly won the recognition of the socialist camp and some other countries, and established formal diplomatic relations with more than a dozen countries in the first year (There were only about 60 sovereign states in the world at that time).


When the new China had just started its national construction, the Korean War broke out, and the U.S., taking advantage of it, manipulatively set up the United Nations Command to launch the war of aggression against North Korea. They first sent the seventh fleet into the Taiwan Strait, and quickly brought the war to the Yalu River on the Sino-Korean border, seriously jeopardizing the national security of China. To defend the newly established country, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army crossed the Yalu River in October 1950 to resist U.S. aggression and aid North Korea. After three years of joint fierce and bloody counterattacking of the Chinese and North Korean armies, setting the military demarcation line near the 38th parallel, the U.S. was forced to sign the Korean Armistice Agreement in July 1953. China tided over the grim “survival test.”


As the Korean War drew to an end, tensions in East Asia eased and the pace of national construction of new China sped up. In order to promote the development of China’s foreign relations, Zhou Enlai, then premier and foreign minister of China, put forward the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which was announced to the world in the Joint Statements between China and India, and between China and Myanmar. These principles immediately sparked support from the global community, and the peaceful image and diplomatic strategy of a new China were widely applauded. Since then, China’s diplomacy has developed rapidly. By 1965, formal diplomatic relations were established with 45 countries, including France, a Western power, in 1964.

On February 21, 1972, U.S. President Nixon visits China at the invitation of Zhou Enlai, premier of the People’s Republic of China. China-U.S. relations, which had been handicapped by confrontations for more than 20 years, enter a new chapter. 


In the 1960s, new China’s diplomacy continued to encounter severe challenges. First, in the socialist camp, the Soviet Union carried out a policy of “great-power chauvinism” to interfere with China’s sovereignty and independence. New China resolutely safeguarded its sovereign independence and national dignity by resisting the Soviet Union’s great-power chauvinism. As a result, the Soviet Union withdrew its experts and specialists from China and tore up contracts to exert pressure, finally resulting in the breakdown of Sino-Soviet relations. Second, following its failure in the Korean War, the U.S. did not change its policy of hostility and containment. Besides continuing to interfere in China’s internal affairs concerning Taiwan, it sent armed forces into southern Vietnam. In 1965, a U.S. mass aggression against Vietnam broke out. China’s national security was seriously threatened by U.S. aggression in the south.


During this period, new China adhered to its independent foreign policy, against both the U.S. and Soviet Union, and became an important force that could not be ignored in the international political arena. A strategic triangular relationship accordingly took shape among the U.S., the Soviet Union and China. As the U.S. plunged into the quagmire of the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union strengthened its international expansion, and the rivalry for hegemonic domination between the Soviet Union and the U.S. was formed as the Soviet Union gained the upper hand.


In July 1971, Henry Kissinger, the then U.S. National Security Advisor, secretly visited China. In October of that year, China resumed its legitimate membership in the United Nations. In February 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon paid an official visit to China. New China soon established diplomatic relations with dozens of countries, including Italy, Canada, Britain, West Germany, and Japan. China’s strategic security environment was improved and China’s diplomacy witnessed great development, and this momentum was sustained during the following years.


This phase lasted for 29 years, and new China’s diplomacy greatly contributed to achieving the historical mission of gaining independence. By the end of 1978, 101 countries had established formal diplomatic relations with China at the ambassadorial level. Independence is a distinct feature of China’s diplomacy at this stage.


1978-2012: Peaceful Development


At the end of 1978, the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China decided to shift the focus of the national work to economic construction, a great historical turning point that initiated the grand era of “reform and opening-up” which had enormous impacts on China as a nation. To enable its people to live a comfortable life, China needed to focus on the economic construction, open up to the outside world and implement reforms to realize high-speed economic growth. To align with the national strategy, China’s diplomacy made unique innovations, ensuring that China’s economic construction had a peaceful environment, and meanwhile facilitating China to develop economic, trade, science and technology, cultural, and other relations with other countries in an all-round way.

On April 26, 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan host a banquet in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to welcome foreign leaders and guests attending the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.


Since 1980, the independent foreign policy of peace has been defined as the general and principal foreign policy of China. Under this policy framework, China adopted the policy of non-alignment, which means that China will never be dependent on any superpower, nor will it form alliance or strategic relations with any of them. China also put forward a series of forward-looking diplomatic theories, such as that peace and development are the two major themes of the contemporary world; that the jeopardy of war should not be ignored even though the possibility is low – the forces of peace to contain war got remarkably stronger at that time; that the two superpowers dare not wage war easily; and that efforts should be made to support third world countries in developing their national economy, to improve North-South relations, and develop South-South cooperation.


China and the U.S. established diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level on January 1, 1979. The thaw in Sino-Soviet relations began to emerge after 1982. In May 1989, General Secretary of the CPSU Mikhail Gorbachev visited China, marking the normalization of Sino-Soviet relations. China had thus achieved the goal of improving its relationship with the world’s important strategic forces in an all-round way. Within the decade from January 1979 to the end of May 1989, 27 more countries established formal diplomatic relations with China, raising the number of countries with diplomatic ties with China to 128 (there were about 170 sovereign countries in the world by then). China had also established economic and trade relations with most countries and regions in the world. China’s international status was further enhanced as a result.


After 1989, the Western countries led by the U.S. imposed comprehensive sanctions on China. China’s diplomacy faced severe challenges following the dramatic changes in Eastern Europe, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the bipolar structure and the deterioration of the international environment. However, China withstood the test, as the country did not waver in upholding the policy of reform and opening-up, and continued to press on with development. Politically, China adhered to the track of a socialist market economy. China’s diplomacy won the support of most countries in the world, and prompted those countries that imposed sanctions on China to gradually change their policies. China broke the blockade of the West, and entered a period of relatively rapid development.


In 1997 and 1999, Hong Kong and Macao returned to the motherland smoothly, practicing the “one country, two systems” policy. The relationship between China and international organizations had been developing steadily. After more than 10 years of diplomatic negotiations, China formally joined the WTO in December 2001, signifying its deeper integration into the world economy. China established economic and trade relations with almost every country and region in the world. Since then, China’s economy has experienced rapid development. In 2008, China took the position as the world’s largest industrial country, and then surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy in 2010.


During this period spanning 34 years, China’s diplomacy made important contributions to the realization of the historical task of achieving prosperity. By the end of 2012, China had established diplomatic relations with 172 countries (the number of sovereign countries in the world at that time was about 200). Peaceful development was a distinct feature of China’s diplomacy at this stage.


2012-2019: Win-win Cooperation


Since the 18th National Congress of the CPC, the CPC Central Committee, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, has led the whole Party and the people of China into a new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics. This new era is one of realizing the Chinese Dream, strengthening national power, and making great contributions to the world. The CPC Central Committee, with Xi Jinping at its core, grasps the general trend of China’s and world’s development in the new era, and moves China closer to the center of the world stage, making China a great diplomatic power for championing world development and maintaining world peace.


This new era has just started and will last for some time to come, but a series of theoretical and practical innovations have been made in the work of foreign affairs.


In June 2018, at the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs, Xi Jinping’s thinking on diplomacy with Chinese characteristics for a new era was officially put forward, as an important part of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and a major theoretical achievement of the CPC Central Committee’s political thought on governing the country in the diplomatic field.


Xi Jinping’s profound thinking on diplomacy includes the following major elements:


A Community of Shared Future for Mankind. Since 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping has proposed to establish a community of shared future for mankind at many diplomatic activities. On January 18, 2017, Xi delivered a keynote speech at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland, entitled “Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind.” In the speech, he pointed out that China will stay committed to building a community of shared future for mankind to achieve shared and win-win development, and building a world of lasting peace through dialogue and consultation, a world of common security for all through joint efforts, a world of common prosperity through win-win cooperation, an open and inclusive world through exchanges and mutual learning, and a clean and beautiful world by pursuing green and low-carbon development. The concept of building a community of shared future for mankind is of worldwide significance, and will certainly have a far-reaching impact on international relations and human development.


Upholding justice while pursuing shared interests. In many diplomatic activities since 2013, Xi has emphasized the importance of upholding justice while pursuing shared interests. To do so, according to Xi, we should, at the political level, uphold the principles of fairness, justice and equality among nations, abide by the basic norms governing international relations, oppose hegemonic and power politics, and object to harming the interests of others and destroying regional peace and stability for the sake of one’s own interest; and at the economic level, we should take actions that bring mutual benefits and lead to win-win solutions. China has the obligation to provide assistance to neighboring and developing countries within the limits of its own resources. It is necessary to work for justice at the expense of self-interest and fulfill these obligations despite an unfavorable calculus in financial terms.


The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is based on the principle of extensive consultation, joint contribution, and shared benefits. When Xi visited Kazakhstan in September 2013, he raised the idea of the Silk Road Economic Belt. Later during his visit to Indonesia in October, he put forward the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative. These ideas have been warmly received by many countries. The core of Xi Jinping’s thinking on diplomacy is a community of a shared future for mankind. In order to achieve this goal, we need to take a series of governance approaches represented by the BRI, and implement them in a down-to-earth manner to promote the advancement of human society towards a bright future.


In addition to the aforementioned, Xi’s thinking on diplomacy also includes such ideas as win-win international relations, sincere and cordial relations with Africa and developing countries, coordinated land and marine development, and a new-type of major country relations.


China’s diplomacy in the new era has achieved fruitful results, and bilateral relations have continued to expand. By mid-2019, China had established formal diplomatic relations with 178 countries. Multilateral diplomacy is dynamic, and China has made great efforts to promote the Paris Agreement that was reached at the end of 2016. China dispatches the largest number of UN peace-keeping forces among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. China has also made tremendous contributions to addressing regional hot issues, such as the North Korean nuclear issue, the South China Sea issue, the Syrian issue, the Iranian nuclear issue, the fight against global diseases, and poverty eradication.


Summit diplomacy plays an important role. From 2013 to 2018, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang respectively visited a dozen countries and participated in four to seven international summits a year on average. They have played a unique and irreplaceable role in displaying China’s image, promoting Chinese conceptions and perspectives, implementing China’s propositions, developing friendly relations with other countries in the world, and dealing with and solving major bilateral, regional, and global complex problems.


The scale of host diplomacy is unprecedented. Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in November 2012, China has hosted many signature events of global or regional importance. They include: the fourth summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia (CICA) held in Shanghai in May 2014, the 22nd APEC Informal Leaders’ Meeting held in Beijing in November 2014, the G20 Leaders Meeting held in Hangzhou in September 2016, the 18th Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit held in Qingdao in June 2018, the Beijing Summit of the 2018 CACF held in September 2018, and the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing in May 2017 and April 2019 respectively.


In the new era, China is steadily and rapidly moving towards the center of the world diplomatic arena. It safeguards the international environment for China’s peaceful development and world peace in general. It is making efforts to contribute to the future development of the world. Win-win cooperation is a distinct feature of China’s diplomacy at this stage.



ZHANG LILI is a professor with the China Foreign Affairs University.


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