Exploring Chinese History
- International Relations -

Communist Foreign Relations



Since its establishment, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has worked vigorously to win international support for its position that it is the sole legitimate government of all China, including Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. Until the early 1970s, the Republic of China government in Taipei was recognized diplomatically by most world powers and the UN. After the Beijing government assumed the China seat in the United Nations in 1971 (and the ROC government was expelled) and became increasingly more significant as a global player, most nations switched diplomatic relations from the Republic of China to the People's Republic of China. Japan established diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1972, following the Joint Communiqué between the Governments of Japan and the People's Republic of China; the United States followed in 1972. The number of countries that have established diplomatic relations with Beijing has risen to 165, while 24 maintain diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan).

Both the PRC and ROC make it a prerequisite for diplomatic relations that a country does not recognize and conduct any official relations with the other party.


After its founding, the PRC's foreign policy initially focused on solidarity with the Soviet Union and other communist countries. In 1950, the PRC sent the People's Liberation Army into North Korea as "volunteers" to help North Korea halt the UN offensive that was approaching the Yalu River. After the conclusion of the Korean conflict, the PRC sought to balance its identification as a member of the Soviet bloc by establishing friendly relations with Pakistan and other Third World countries, particularly in Southeast Asia. In 1962, the PRC had a brief war with India over a border dispute.

In the 1960s, Beijing competed with Moscow for political influence among communist parties and in the developing world generally. Following the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and clashes in 1969 on the Sino-Soviet border, Chinese competition with the Soviet Union increasingly reflected concern over China's own strategic position.

In late 1978, the Chinese also became concerned over Vietnam's efforts to establish open control over Laos and Cambodia. In response to the Soviet-backed Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the PRC fought a war with Vietnam (February-March 1979).

Chinese anxiety about Soviet strategic advances was heightened following the Soviet Union's December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Sharp differences between the PRC and the Soviet Union persisted over Soviet support for Vietnam's continued occupation of Cambodia, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Soviet troops along the Sino-Soviet border and in Mongolia--the so-called "three obstacles" to improved Sino-Soviet relations.

In the 1970s and 1980s the PRC sought to create a secure regional and global environment for itself and to foster good relations with countries that could aid its economic development. To this end, the PRC looked to the West for assistance with its modernization drive and for help in countering Soviet expansionism, which it characterized as the greatest threat to its national security and to world peace.

The PRC maintained its consistent opposition to "superpower hegemonism," focusing almost exclusively on the expansionist actions of the Soviet Union and Soviet proxies such as Vietnam and Cuba, but it also placed growing emphasis on a foreign policy independent of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. While improving ties with the West, the PRC continued to closely follow the political and economic positions of the Third World Non-Aligned Movement, although the PRC was not a formal member.

In the immediate aftermath of Tiananmen crackdown in June 1989, many countries reduced their diplomatic contacts with the PRC as well as their economic assistance programs. In response, the PRC worked vigorously to expand its relations with foreign countries, and by late 1990, had reestablished normal relations with almost all nations. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, the PRC also opened diplomatic relations with the republics of the former Soviet Union.

The foreign relations of the People's Republic of China draws upon traditions extending back to China in the Qing dynasty and the Opium Wars, despite China having undergone many radical upheavals over the past two and a half centuries.

The goal of the foreign policy within the People's Republic of China is to create a strong, independent, powerful, and united China which is a great power within the world. Chinese foreign policy experts believe that in achieving this goal, they are not pursuing any hegemonic or war-like ambitions and are sometimes very perplexed that others may see China's motives in this way. Nevertheless, many actions taken by the Chinese government in its relations with other countries as well as its rapidly developing military capacities belie this perplexity.

In sharp contrast to the former Soviet Union and the United States, recent Chinese foreign policy has not been devoted to advancing any higher international ideological interests such as world communism and are generally cynical about the motives of nations, particularly the United States, who claim that they are motivated by higher goals such as spreading freedom, democracy and justice. This cynicism partially comes from Chinese thinking in which ideology is secondary to advancing national interest. In this sense, Chinese foreign policy makers may be seen to adhere to the realist rather than the liberal school of international relations theory. While this cynicism strikes many as selfish, others have pointed out that the "selfish" nature of Chinese foreign policy has made Chinese foreign policy extremely flexible and also prevents China from involving itself in the affairs of other nations on ideological grounds. Still others point out that in an era of increasing scarcity such selfishness will breed international altercations.

In much of the 20th century, Chinese foreign policy was based on a sense of victimhood (of centuries-long Western and Japanese colonialism) and a determination to fight back perceived humiliations. At the start of the 21st century, there appears to be a shift in Chinese foreign policy and calls from within China to reduce its victim mentality (受害者心态, shòuhaìzhě xīntaì) and recognize that with a generation of economic growth, that China has begun to fulfil its ambitions of becoming a great power once again and should adopt a great power mentality (大国心态, dàgúo xīntaì) to use its power responsibly and optimistically. These ideas form part of the new security concept which is China's vision for the post-Cold War era in which nations interact economically and diplomatically for mutual benefit and avoid forming exclusive alliances and/or blocs.

Modern Foreign Policy

In recent years, China's communist leaders have been regular travelers to all parts of the globe, and the PRC has sought a higher profile in the UN through its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and other multilateral organizations. Closer to home, the PRC has made efforts to reduce tensions in Asia; it has contributed to stability on the Korean Peninsula, cultivated a more cooperative relationship with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) (Brunei, Myanmar, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam), and participated in the ASEAN Regional Forum. In 1997, the ASEAN member nations and the People's Republic of China, South Korea and Japan agreed to hold yearly talks to further strengthen regional cooperation, the ASEAN Plus Three meetings. In 2005 the "ASEAN Plus Three" countries together with India, Australia and New Zealand held the inaugural East Asia Summit (EAS).

China has improved ties with Russia. President Putin and President Jiang, in large part to serve as a counterbalance to the United States, signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in July 2001.The two also joined with the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to found the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in June 2001. The SCO is designed to promote regional stability and cooperate to combat terrorism in the region.

Relations between India and China have also improved considerably. After years of competition, China and India are finally starting to collaborate in several economic and strategic areas. Both countries have doubled their economic trade in the past few years and China is expected to become India's largest trading partner by 2008. The two countries are planning to host joint naval exercises to strengthen defense partnership. In 2003, China and India settled a major border dispute through dialogue. China recognized Sikkim as a part of India while India recognized Tibet as part of the PRC. However, the dispute over Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh and China's military aid to Pakistan, India's arch-rival, continues to plague Sino-India relations.

The PRC has a number of border and maritime disputes, including with Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin, with a number of countries in the South China Sea, as well as with Japan. Beijing has resolved many of these disputes, notably including a November 1997 agreement with Russia that resolved almost all outstanding border issues and a 2000 agreement with Vietnam to resolve some differences over their maritime border, though disagreements remain over some islands in the South China Sea.

During the late 1990s and early 21st century, Chinese foreign policy appeared to be focused at improving relations with Russia and Europe in order to counterbalance the United States. This strategy was based on the premise that the United States was a hyperpower whose influence could be checked through alliances with second tier powers such as Russia or the European Union. This assessment of United States power was reconsidered after the United States intervention in Kosovo, and as the 20th century drew to a close, the discussion among thinktanks in China involved how to reorient Chinese foreign policy in a unipolar world. This discussion also occurred in the context of China's new security concept which argued that the post-Cold War era required nations to move away from thinking in terms of alliances and power blocs and toward thinking in terms of economic and diplomatic cooperation.

The shift away from a balancing strategy could be seen in China's actions after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States invasion of Iraq, and the accession of Hu Jintao. Although there were some initial fears that American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq would lead to an increase in American power and the encirclement and tighter containment of China, the actual consequence was a shift in focus by the United States to the Middle East, which resulted in a desire to avoid crises in East Asia. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Blue Team in the United States which argued that China was the largest security threat to the United States became much more muted.

China was instrumental at brokering talks with North Korea over its nuclear program, and in 2003, there was a concerted effort by China to improve relations with the ASEAN nations and form a common East Asian market. These foreign policy efforts have been part of a general foreign policy initiative known as China's peaceful rise.

Much of the new diplomatic activity appears to be the result of a change in China's self-image. With the accession of the fourth generation of Chinese leaders, China appears to be seeing itself less as a victimized developing nation, but rather more as an assertive but responsible regional power.

In 2005, there has been talk of the European Union lifting its arms embargo, however the United States has objected to this.


Scroll to Top