An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Foreign Relations 1970-1980

Sep 14, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

After the factual end of the Cultural Revolution in 1968, China freed herself of the ideological element in foreign policy and attempted to break up international isolation. The military clashes with the Soviet Union, former ally, but then China's arch-enemy, at the island of Damanski (Zhenbao Dao) in 1969 paved the way for assuming informal relations with the United States.

This was possible because the Nixon Administration was seeking for a solution out of the Vietnam War and a better arms control with regard to the threat of the worldwide nuclear potential. Some scholars even believe that the death of Lin Biao in September 1971 opened the way to relations with the US. Lin Biao had often supported rapprochement to the SU and continued to prepare for war against the US. The Chinese leadership admitted that in the realm of foreign policy, the second half of the 1960s had seen an extreme leftist view, which would have to be corrected in the future. China had already trade agreements with several "capitalist" states, particularly France and Japan, and therefore knew that ideology was only an impediment for economic development. In 1970 diplomatic relations with Italy and Canada were established, in 1971 with Austria and Belgium (apart from several other countries in Africa and the Near East).

Extremely helpful for the aim of establishing more diplomatic relations was the UN Resolution 2758 of October 1971. It restored the lawful rights of the People’s Republic of China in the United Nations and deprived the Republic of China on Taiwan of these rights, which means that the PRC entered the United Nations and the Security Council, while Taiwan dropped out of it.

Mao Zedong changed his theory on the interstitial zone and created in 1974 his theory of the three worlds (san shijie de lilun). Even if this theory was determined by considerations about hegemony and power instead of by ideology, Mao argued that there was "one line" running from the United States to the "second-world countries" Japan, China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and the European states. This line would unite the "large strip" of nations (including the US) against the Soviet Union (yi da pian, yi tiao xian 一大片,一条线). While countries of the third world (mainly in Africa and Latin America) were the main forces in the "fight against imperialism, colonialism and hegemonialism", the second-world countries had "no hegemonial ambitions" by themselves, and could therefore be guarantors of peace. China was intending to build up, together with the United States, a united front against the Soviet Union. Yet the politics of appeasement between the two superpowers that had begun in the late 1950s (barring cases as the Cuba Crisis of 1962) demonstrates that the US would not be willing to join China's front against Moscow.

Another, perhaps more important, impediment for this project was the Taiwan policy of the US. America continued to support and display its readiness to defend the KMT regime on the island against territorial claims of the PRC. The assumption of normal relations in 1972 did not alter this attitude, and prolonged the process of establishing diplomatic relations (which were eventually initiated in 1979).

In the second half of the 1960s, China felt threatened by both the United States and the Soviet Union and therefore prepared for attacks from outside. From 1971 on this fear was gone, and China felt free to carry out reforms in the army. Internal fights between army cadres were to be pacified, supernumerary troops to be set free and young officers to replace the old, politically indoctrinated guard. Finally, in terms of technology, the PLA was outdated. The peaceful situation throughout most of the 1970s allowed for adjustment measures.

The situation became tense again with the increasing hostilities from the side of Vietnam, which had become a defined ally of the Soviet Union. Border clashes, an aggressive policy of Vietnam towards Laos and Cambodia, and quarrels over the occupation of the Paracel Islands by China led Deng Xiaoping to the decision to carry out a punitive campaign against Vietnam in March 1979. The war was also a test of the fighting power of the PLA, and proved that it was not sufficiently equipped and trained, due to the overemphasis of ideology in the years before the Cultural Revolution.

The normalization in the relations with the United States and the Shanghai Communiqué was followed by the establishing of diplomatic relations in 1972 with several western countries, among others Great Britain, the Netherlands, Japan, the FR Germany, and Australia. The entry into the UN also yielded recognition by a large number of states around the world. In the communist world, China only retained relations to Romania, Yugoslawia, and North Korea. Albania, a former supporter, had left the line because of China’s rapprochement with the US. The PRC also began to isolate Taiwan internationally by convincing more and more states to transfer diplomatic recognition to the mainland instead of to Taiwan.

Table 1. Diplomatic relations of China established 1970-1979
1970 Canada, Equatorial Guinea, Italy, Ethiopia, Chile
1971 Nigeria, Kuwait, Cameroon, San Marino, Austria, Sierra Leone, Turkey, Iran, Belgium, Peru, Lebanon, Ruanda, Senegal, Iceland, Cyprus
1972 Malta, Mexico, Argentina, Great Britain, Mauritius, the Netherlands, Greece, Guyana, Togo, Japan, FR Germany, Maldives, Madagascar, Luxemburg, Jamaica, Chad, Australia, New Zealand
1973 Spain
1974 Guinea Bissau, Gabon, Malaysia, Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela, Niger, Brazil, Gambia
1975 Botswana, the Philippines, Mozambique, Thailand, San Tome and Principe, Bangladesh, Fiji, Samoa, Comoros
1976 Cape Verde, Surinam, Seychelles, Papua New Guinea
1977 Liberia, Jordan, Barbados
1978 Oman, Libya
1979 USA, Djibouti, Portugal, Ireland

While economic interests had only played a secondary role in the 1950s and 1960s, they achieved more prominence in the 1970s. The volume of foreign trade increased from 4.6 billion US$ in 1970 to 29.3 billion in 1979 (six times as much), while the GDP had doubled from 380 billion to 764 billion US$ in the same time (Meng 2012: 115). The increase of foreign trade experienced two quick rises, one in 1972/73, with the systematic import of foreign industrial technology (the Four-Three Plan, Si-san fang'an 四三方案, called so because China wanted to import equipment with a value of 4.3 billion US$ within five years), and the second after the initiation of the policy of Reform and Opening (gaige kaifang) and the creation of special economic zones for foreign direct investment in 1978/79. Concerning individual states, "capitalist" nations played a dominant role. The trade volume between the PRC and Japan, for instance, increased from 0.8 billion to 6.7 billion US$ (1970-1979), that with West Germany from 0.3 to 2.2 billion US$ (1970-1979), and the trade volume with the US stood in 1979 at 2.5 billion US$ (Meng 2012: 118).

Ideology had lost its predominant place in foreign policy. The aim of exporting revolution to other countries to ignite world revolution was nullified, but critique towards US (and Soviet) hegemonialism remained. The exaggerated amount of foreign aid granted by China to third-world countries also drastically declined from 5.9 billion RMB (2.5 per cent of the GDP) in 1973 to 0.9 billion (0.7 per cent of the GDP) in 1979 (Meng 2012: 122).

Meng Lingqi (2012). Der Wandel der chinesischen außenpolitischen Interessenstruktur seit 1949 (Wiesbaden: Springer).