The changing nature of Chinese diplomacy

Paper: II

Mains: General Studies- II: Governance, Constitution, Polity, Social Justice and International relations

Context:

Unilateralism and a one-size-fits-all approach have replaced the Zhou and Deng strategy of persuasion and compromise

Zhou Enlai Era:

  • As against the charismatic Mao Zedong who had famously stated that “power flows out of the barrel of a gun”, Zhou Enlai opted for a more refined approach. Zhou Enlai adopted the strategy of persuasion and compromiseto seduce his opponents and challengers both domestically and internationally.
  • The use of force was rare and only when all other means of persuasion failed.
  • The Chinese diplomatic strategy was consistent: avoid isolation, build solidarity with non-aligned countries, divide the West.The tactics were called ‘united front’ which involved isolating the main threat by building unity with all other forces.

Significant events happened during his time:

War in Korean peninsula:

  • During the war in the Korean peninsula, Zhou Enlai first tried to convey Chinese concerns to the advancing U.S. forces against further advancement. This he tried to convey through diplomatic channels rather than choosing to do so in the public domain. This shows that Zhou Enlai always chose to give diplomacy a chance.
  • When, however, the U.S., regardless of Chinese concerns, crossed the 38th Parallel, the Chinese attacked and brought the U.S. forces to a standstill.

Indochina War:

  • In 1954, the Vietnamese were winning against the French in the First Indochina War, and the Americans were preparing to intervene on the side of the French, fearing an increasing spread of communism.
  • China’s self-interest lay in ending the war while denying the U.S. a foothold in its backyard.
  • Instead of direct confrontation, Zhou’s strategy was to undermine western unity. Zhou’s tactful intervention in placating French concerns played an important role in de-escalating tensions.

Bandung Conference:

  • At the Afro-Asian Conference of 1955 in Bandung, Zhou Enlai deliberately kept a low profile, allowing India and Indonesia to take the lead. This allowed China to create conducive conditions for establishing diplomatic work or diplomatic relations between China and a number of Afro-Asian countries.

Cold war era:

  • Despite being ideologically similar to Soviet Union, China navigated the Cold War deftly by playing the Soviets and Americans against each other.
  • China maintained ties with both blocs.

Taiwan issue:

  • In February 1972, Zhou Enlai persuaded U.S. President Richard Nixon to abandon Taiwan ties and adopt a one China policy, despite the fact that the communists had not exercised actual sovereignty over that island even for a single day since 1949. It was a staggering act of diplomacy.

Implication:

Zhou’s style of diplomacy came to define Chinese foreign policy over the next half-century. This helped China expand its global presence and gain international acceptability.

Deng Xiaoping era:

  • Deng Xiaoping took over the Chinese premiership in the 1980s in the early days of China’s opening up to the outside world.
  • Deng supplemented Zhou’s strategy with a “24-Character Strategy” involving significant aspects like measured response to changes, securing gradually Chinese position in the global order, while hiding its capacities and maintaining a low profile and not claiming leadership.
  • The same strategy was employed by Chinese diplomats who measured their words and kept their dignity even while projecting power.
  • They built relationships by making it a point to engage the less-friendly interlocutors with greater courtesies than friends.
  • They resorted to extensive negotiationsto understand the other side better.
  • Though occasionally and subtly they would hold out a veiled threat, their actions rarely offended any country.

Significant events:

  • China played host to many significant global leaders in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • China normalised relations with many nationsand won over many nations through general financial help.
  • The successful Chinese diplomacy led to Americans breaking their own sanctions imposed after the 1989 ‘Tian An Men Incident’.
  • Based on Chinese assurances that it would soon transition to a market economy, the U.S. and the European Union helped steer China into the World Trade Organization.

Current situation:

  • China has begun to occupy centre stage in world diplomacy, but there have been significant changes in the Chinese Diplomatic efforts.

Diplomatic Strategy:

  • The most distinctive aspects of current Chinese diplomacy are:
  • More assertive approach.
  • Lesser emphasis on persuasion and negotiations and increasing unilateralism.
  • Lesser tolerance of countries taking actions contrary to Chinese wishes.
  • Adoption of a one-size-fits-all approach.

Recent events:

  • The Chinese have pursued unilateralism instead of negotiations in the South China Sea.
  • China has resorted to repeated border skirmisheswith neighbouring countries.
  • China has not been accepting blame for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conclusion:

Unilateralism and a one-size-fits-all approach have replaced the Zhou and Deng strategy of persuasion and compromise.The reserves of goodwill earned by China over years are fast depleting. Post-COVID-19, China would be operating in a very difficult external environment.