Chinese Diplomacy – Understanding the changing nature


Chinese diplomacy has changed. In this post, the changing nature of Chinese diplomacy is analysed, presenting a historical background.

It is interesting to study how China became a dominant player in international politics. Certainly, the way China handled its diplomacy has a great role in its quick assertion of power.

At a time when US-China trade war is escalating, and when questions are raised over the China model related to COVID-19, let’s analyse the origin and evolution of Chinese diplomacy.

Chinese Diplomacy

China: The Origin of PRC and the concept of ‘Tianxia’

In 1949, there was a revolution in China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formed, establishing the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The newly established PRC accepted the Leninist–Stalinist style of state administration.

The Chinese, in general, do not believe in tracing their existence to a system based on sovereign equality but trace their origin on the divine & boundless reach with the central authority of divine Chinese emperor, with focus on establishing tianxia (which in Mandarin means “all under heaven”), that is the Middle Kingdom which guided by heaven.

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India and China since independence

  • The early 1950s was a period of decolonisation.
  • As new countries were born in the region, the question that emerged was what role would India and China play in this newly emerging post-colonial world order.
  • India propounded its NAM for the decolonised world and used NAM to position itself as a third force in the era of bipolarity.
  • However, India realized that success or failure of its position in a new international order would depend upon the support or opposition to its efforts by China.
  • Nehru wanted to win the support of China and Nehru believed that an East led by India and China could guide the world morally at a time when the Western thought process was being guided by polarized ideological
  • Thus, Nehru’s idea of China was based on cooperation than containment. This is the reason why Nehru even invited Zhou Enlai to the Bandung Conference.
  • Nehru wanted to build India’s relationship with Chinese on the enduring historical connections of the two as civilizational states.
  • Vallabhbhai Patel, in contrast, had been a keen advocate of a more cautious approach and Patel advocated for a military build-up for India and creation of roads near the China border, along with other vital infrastructure.
  • He even favoured US cooperation to balance China if needed but Nehru was not in favour of any US cooperation to contain China as he found it to be a Cold War tactic, which could weaken Non-Alignment.
  • But the death of Patel in 1950 gave Nehru the steering wheel of India’s China policy and Nehru could not be challenged by anyone thereafter.

Chinese united front and Cold War

  • The Chinese adopted a unique foreign policy in the conference and thereafter. The Chinese tactic was called “united front”.
  • Under this tactic, the Chinese aimed to avoid their isolation by building solidarity with the non-aligned world and dividing the West.
  • The Chinese played a consummate game of isolating the main threat by building unity with all other forces against the West.
  • The Chinese diplomats kept the Chinese state steady in a churning sea that was full of storms. Whenever the storm tide rose in the sea, these diplomatic fishermen aptly gathered the fish and expanded the global presence of the Chinese and gained rightful international acceptability.
  • Whenever the ship ebbed, these diplomatic fishermen of China ensured that the Chinese ship (the state) remained firmly moored.
  • Throughout the Cold War, the Chinese played their cards well and ensured that they don’t upset either Henry Kissinger or Alexei Kosygin.
  • In 1972, when Chinese decided to open up their economy, Zhou persuaded Nixon to abandon Taiwan (which he did in 1978), a staggering act of diplomacy, considering, Chinese had not even exercised a single day of sovereignty over Taiwan.

The 24 Character Diplomatic Strategy of China

  • The high noon for Chinese diplomacy was the period of 1980s and 1990s. The American people became fascinated with the Chinese when the Protestant Missionaries in the 1990s began to assert that God wanted to bring salvation to the Chinese.
  • In the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping took over China, he decided to supplement the strategy of diplomacy adopted by Zhou till date with his own “24-Character Strategy”.
  • The basic premise of Deng Xiaoping was to observe calmly, secure the position of China, hide the capacities of China and bide time, maintain a low profile deliberately and do not claim leadership.
  • These thoughts eventually became the Chinese diplomatic paradigms and the Chinese diplomats measured their words, maintained their dignity, projected their power but never blustered. The Chinese diplomats became masters of their briefs and were ingrained by Zhou that core advantage in any negotiation is to know more than the other side knows.
  • This is why, a classical tactic of Chinese diplomats is that they flatter their acquaintances till today by calling them “old friends” and they deliberately built stronger relationships with interlocutors of less friendly states than friendly ones while behind the doors, they would skillfully put the blame of failure on their opponent.
  • So seductive was the Chinese diplomacy that the Americans ironically lifted their sanctions within four weeks after the Tiananmen incident of 1989. After the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997, arrogance began to replace the humility hallmark of Chinese diplomacy.

The revenge for the humiliation

  • The new diplomats, trained in English language and born with a careerist mindset quickly dropped persuasion and replaced it with a stick when a country took an action contrasting the Chinese wishes.
  • Chinese diplomacy in the South China Sea asserts that the dominant diplomatic tactic of China is to pursue unilateralism and not compromise. Now the new tactic of China is to seek revenge for the ‘Century of Humiliation from 1839 to 1949’ where China has developed an uncaring attitude towards the rest of the world as if the world has done nothing for China till today and rather, has shared a similar historical experience of humiliation only.
  • In the international community, if a statement of fact or some reasoned opinion is presented to Chinese today, they perceive that as an insult or a humiliation, clearly reflecting that the veneer of humility has thinned down.
  • This is a clear indication of depleting goodwill and the ship being adrift at the sea. If the Chinese do not take corrective measures in a post-COVID-19 world, then the ship could be soon dragged from the shore by a receding tide.
  • The Chinese may do well to recall what Kissinger told the White House staff in July 1971 after his trip to China, something that they seem to have forgotten today: “The Chinese style is impressive. The Russians will fight you for every nickel and dime, and elbow you at every level, and lose a million dollars of goodwill in the process. The Chinese have a sense of the longer trends and focus on that, not on ploymanship.”

The American stakeholders in Chinese global power quest

  • All American Presidents, from Nixon, who gave international recognition to Chinese in 1978, to George HW Bush who washed the Chinese sins of Tiananmen Square in 1989, to Bill Clinton who ushered the Chinese entry in WTO, have been ‘responsible stakeholders’ in the rise of China.
  • In contrast, the Chinese have always behaved as hard-nosed people who pursued engagements with US on a selfish note, although couched in high principles always.
  • They have always disguised their real purpose of thwarting the American hegemony by speaking the words that Americans always wanted to hear; from anti-Soviet rhetoric that was music to the American ears in the Cold War to that of market economy in the age of post ideology.
  • This was because the Chinese since Mao to Xi Jinping have always feared that Americans by deception wish to change communist regimes and keep their capitalist order intact and this view was reinforced to the Chinese when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
  • This strengthened the resolve of the Chinese to create a parallel universe of their own to resist capitalistic America and since then Chinese have been building an alternative trading system (the Belt and Road Initiative), an alternative banking system (the New Development Bank), their own GPS (Beidou), digital payment platforms (like Alipay and WeChat Pay) to that of cutting edge digital network of 5G, all under the nose of the Americans, despite voices of caution from eminent political scientists like John Mearsheimer, who rightly stated that Hu Jintao’s ‘peaceful rise’ will not be ‘peaceful’.

The de-coupling by Trump Administration and the future

It is only now that Donald Trump has finally understood that Chinese are not graven in their image they have created and along with Russia, both constitute a threat to American power.

This is why we see that the ongoing US-China trade war, Trump’s restrictions on Chinese immigration to the US from 2020 are nothing but steps of a serious de-coupling and re-adjustment starting up.

While American diplomats like Steve Bannon may say that the US is already at a war with Chinese, others like Richard Hass and Robert Zoellick might warn that starting a new cold war with the Chinese could be a grave mistake.

The recent literature emerging fro China like an essay called “The Chinese Reassessment of Interdependence” by Julian Gewirtz asserts that if Trump is determined to disentangle China from the global supply chains, then, Xi Jinping too is determined to break the US chokehold on technology.

As the de-coupling is inevitable now, India will suffer the collateral damages. In the post COVID world, Hong Kong will emerge as a new game changer between US and China because the rivalry, which till now was purely material between the two, is shifting now to the ideological realm, where the US has condemned the Chinese assaults on human freedoms.

The reason being that Hong Kong remains the bastion of capitalism of the West in the East because many in the US had looked at Honk Kong as a statue of liberty, holding a torch of freedom and democracy, for those who enter China, thus it is an assault on American beliefs.

As time will progress and the world will see more information suppressed and errors of omission by China-related to COVID-19, there would be more questions raised on the future model of China in contrast to democracy.

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This divergence could become the seed of a new Cold War of the 21st century.

Model question for practice:

Question: Examine the changing nature of Chinese diplomacy. Do you think the present events could lead to the second generation of Cold War? (10 Marks/100 Words).

Note: ClearIAS in partnership with McGraw Hill is organising a 5-day webinar series on various topics under International Relations. The 5-webinars (FREE) will be handled by Mr. Pavneet Singh, author of the book ‘International Relations’. More details here.

(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official view of ClearIAS)

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