This is a history of the ideas behind Chinese foreign policy, and to a large extent these have been and still are the
ideas of Mao Zedong. The story begins in the 1920s when Chinese revolutionaries, including Mao, puzzled over the connection
between imperialism abroad and revolution at home. It ends in the 1970s, when China has long since made its revolution, but
still faces immense problems of a theoretical as well as a practical kind in dealing with the external powers. The visit of
President Nixon to Beijing in February 1972 was not an end to China's long search for international security, but only the
beginning of another of the many efforts which it has made in that direction.
It is sometimes said that the Chinese communists had little interest in or knowledge of the outside world until they achieved
victory in 1949. They had simply followed the 'Soviet line' as, it is argued, they continued to do for several years after
setting up the People's Republic. This is far from the truth. Chinese nationalists of every political colour were intensely
concerned with the international situation during and between the two world wars, by necessity as much as by choice. Most
politically articulate Chinese were making their revolution with the living lesson of imperialism before their eyes, in the
Treaty Ports, on the railway lines, among the foreign enterprises which dominated Chinese industry and commerce. And the course
of that revolution was on many occasions directly affected by fresh twists and turns on the international scene. To list just
a few during the twelve years preceding the Liberation of 1949: there was Japan's aggression against China, the outbreak of
the European war, the Soviet Pacts with Germany and later Japan, Pearl Harbour, American and later Soviet intervention in
China, American occupation of Japan, Soviet discouragement of the Chinese revolution, the US-sponsored return of the colonial
powers to Southeast Asia, the formation of the cold-war power blocs.
If the Chinese had been so 'traditionally Sino-centric' as to ignore the kaleidoscopically changing world around them,
they would have simply lost the revolution. On the contrary, their abundant writings on the subject show that Mao and his
colleagues were acutely aware of the need to relate their internal revolution to the world scene which, in spite of their
geographical isolation for most of the revolutionary period, they followed with avid attention. Furthermore they regarded
the international aspect of their situation, that is, China's 'contradiction' with imperialism, as the decisive contradiction
to which all others were subordinate. And while they tried to avoid open disagreement with the Soviet 'line', on several important
issues there were vital differences. Generally speaking, the Chinese worked out their own analyses of international affairs,
using their own language and their own China-oriented terms of reference.
[For the sake of simplicity, when I say 'the Chinese' from here on I shall mean the Chinese communists, whether before
or after 1949, except when it is necessary to distinguish between them and the Guomindang or 'Nationalists'.]
Mao Zedong brought to this task of analysing the outside world and its impact upon China the same qualities of insight
and decisiveness which he showed in grappling with Chinese society at home. As early as 1928, alone among his colleagues,
he cut through the general denunciations of imperialism in China, grasped what he saw to be its essential characteristic --
that it assumed a [semi-colonial form' -- and drew from it a significant theoretical principle. China was better, not worse,
off because it was oppressed by many foreign powers rather than dominated by just one. For the rivalries between the powers,
and the domestic contradictions which were thereby heightened within China's own ruling class, only created more fertile ground
for the revolution. All that was required was for the revolutionary forces to make an accurate assessment of the relative
balance of these external and internal contradictions, and to take advantage of those elements with whom the revolution had
some temporary common ground in order to oppose the principal enemy.
The theory was simple but it called for clarity of analysis un-obscured by generalized dogmas of the kind which came too
frequently from Moscow. As I show in chapters 2 and 3, Mao's theory of semi-colonialism was the starting-point for all the
most important strategic concepts of the Chinese revolution. In seeking to apply it Mao met with considerable opposition in
the 1930s, but during the anti-Japanese war it was central to the Chinese view of the world (chapters 4 and 5). The flexibility
of tactics which it implied led Mao, early in 1945, to seek in effect to win American rather than Soviet backing for his cause.
Four years later it led him to lean instead unequivocally to the side of the Soviet Union, negotiating an alliance (under
considerable difficulty) with Stalin. Two decades later the same principle -- that of distinguishing between the principal
and the subordinate contradictions facing China -- would be invoked to justify inviting Mr Nixon to Beijing.
A second distinctive aspect of Mao's view of the world, which is also central to Chinese policy in the 1970s, emerged
during the critical years of 1946-7, when the Chinese communists fought their civil war alone against the Nationalist armies.
American neutrality was no longer on the cards; American mediation, backed by considerable military aid, discriminated heavily
in favour of Chiang Kai-shek (chapter 6). Stalin advised the Chinese communists to avoid war, fearful that it might disturb
the equilibrium between the two post-war power blocs. From his Yenan cave Mao advanced an analysis of the international situation
which emphasized not the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union but rather the revolutionary battlefield
of the world which lay between the two great powers-the 'intermediate zone' which included China and its own revolution. While
compromise might be required between Washington and Moscow, those fighting against imperialism and for revolution in the intermediate
countries were not obliged to follow suit (chapter 7). An expanded version of this theory would be argued again from 1958
onwards to show that the Soviet quest for East-West détente between the great powers was not only irrelevant but harmful to
the struggles for national liberation. By the late 1960s the two superpowers would be seen as 'colluding yet at the same time
contending' to impose their will on the rest of the world -- the intermediate zone -- in its widest sense.
It will be clear from the summary above of my argument that this book is mainly concerned with the ideas behind Chinese
foreign policy and their working-out in practice, and that I regard Mao as the inspirational source of these ideas. The contribution
of other Chinese leaders, particularly Zhou Enlai, in formulating policy at various times has been considerable, but I regard
their role essentially as that of practitioners of Mao’s grand design, although they have often disagreed over how
to interpret it. These disagreements and their relationship to Chinese internal politics (especially the Cultural Revolution)
is a vast subject which still awaits research, but it is not the subject of this book. Even if it may be slightly exaggerated
to treat Chinese foreign policy in such a unified way, Mao's vision of it is the highest common denominator for the subject,
which has to be fully grasped before one can go on to speculate about policy differences between other leaders.
By the time of Liberation in 1949, China had experienced more than a century of Western imperialism. During this century
almost the entire operation of Chinese foreign policy was taken up at first with resistance to the imperialist powers, then
with an enforced accommodation, and later with attempts to mitigate and finally to liquidate the consequences of their aggression.
When Mao wrote that 'the history of modern China is a history of imperialist aggression' he was expressing a widely-held conviction.
Whether in the same or in different terms, few people outside China would quarrel with his definition either. Foreign relations
for China up until 1949 had been almost entirely dependent upon and reactive to the (usually hostile) initiatives of the external
It is perhaps less evident, but just as significant, that after 1949 China continued to be encumbered by the politics
of foreign dependence. Between the active hostility of the United States and the loaded friendship of the Soviet Union, China
still found itself confined by external pressures. Neither power offered relations with the new People's Republic on an equal
basis, but the terms demanded by Washington were more onerous (chapter 8). At least the Soviet Union and the People's Republic
shared an ideological bond and, for the time being, a common strategic interest in defending the East against the West.
Yet the Korean War, in which China actively took up arms to defend this common interest, only showed up the perils of
dependence upon the Soviet Union while demonstrating even more clearly the difficulties of accommodation with the United States.
(American policies in the Korean War have received only a fraction of the critical attention later accorded them in the Vietnam
War. In chapter 9 I look briefly at two aspects: American intransigence during the ceasefire negotiations and the policy of
terror bombing which put the usual cowboys-and-Red Chinese view of the war in a rather different perspective.)
After the Korean War, China was at long last able to embark seriously upon the quest for an independent foreign policy
(chapter 10). As the cold war receded slightly from its most acute phase and as nationalism became a more assertive force
throughout the world, it was not unreasonable for Beijing to suppose that it too might benefit from the relaxation of tension.
With great skill the Chinese enticed the United States into negotiations, but for three years were quite unable to dent Dulles's
armour. While the Soviet Union managed to move slowly towards a détente with the West, China was excluded from this process.
This imbalance served to sharpen the differences between the two Socialist countries. By the end of the 1950s China had made
no headway with the United States, had lost all faith in the usefulness of its Soviet 'ally', and had achieved only limited
progress in the rest of the world. It is no more than a slight overstatement to say that in this first decade China had exchanged
dependence for isolation.
It was theoretically possible for the Chinese to concede more to the United States (though this would have meant yielding
on Taiwan) or alternatively to concede more to the Soviet Union (though this would have meant accepting a position of uncritical
subordination to Soviet policies). Other leaders might have been tempted to seek accommodation in either direction. Mao was
not. Although Mao's officially published statements on foreign affairs after 1949 are few and mostly of a formal character,
a great mass of 'unofficial' material has more recently become known as a result of the Cultural Revolution when collections
were made in China and freely circulated. These reveal Mao's constant and lively preoccupation with the world outside China,
and his direct influence upon the formulation of official policy. Towards the United States and the general development of
the world 'contradictions' Mao took a cool but in the long-term sanguine view (Chapter 11). At the end of the critical first
decade of Chinese foreign policy, Mao recognized the need for a clean break. The United States would never accept relations
with Beijing on an equal basis until the Chinese had acquired sufficient economic and military muscle power. Towards the Soviet
Union, Mao also calmly accepted the inevitability of a split (chapter 12). He had compared China's revolutionary experience
to that of the Soviet Union, resolved to avoid the errors of Stalin and his successors, and discussed them openly. He had
insisted on frank criticism of Soviet doctrine and foreign policy where it adversely affected the overall interests of the
socialist bloc. Mao's attitude ensured that no patched-up compromise could mask the parting of the ways as the Soviet-American
détente developed, and in the early 1960s he took personal responsibility for the great Chinese polemics which lay bare the
In 1928, after the bloody suppression of the communists by Chiang, Mao had countered 'pessimism' in the ranks of his followers
with his analysis of the bright future ahead of semi-colonial China. Again in 1946-7 he rallied those who were pessimistic
about the outcome of the civil war with his world's eye view from a Yenan cave. For a third time when China again found itself
isolated in the early 1960s, Mao's combination of ideological conviction and shrewd judgment of the changing balance of power
carried his countrymen through the lean years.
For external as well as domestic reasons, the Cultural Revolution was seen by Mao to be a necessity for China (Conclusion).
Yet its ending coincided with changes in the international situation which at last made possible the breakthrough in foreign
policy which the Chinese had long sought. China's regaining of its seat in the United Nations, the opening of de facto relations
with the United States and of diplomatic relations with the vast majority of other countries in the world, was the result
of a volte-face not on the part of Beijing but of Washington, and it was consistent with the long-term thrust of Maoist foreign
policy. Yet at the same time it does involve a number of problems -- or 'contradictions' as the Chinese would say -- which
I shall briefly examine in my final conclusions.
[Today I would find a more severe adjective to characterize the 'lean years' of the early 1960s after the Great Leap Forward
– the first disaster of Mao's ultra-leftist policies in his last two decades, to be followed by the Cultural Revolution.
jg, March 2021]
My main concern in writing this book has been to show that China's discussion and analysis of international affairs, both
in the revolutionary past and since 1949, is neither the product of dogma, nor a justification for policies undertaken for
reasons of narrow national interest, nor liable to change automatically in response to domestic political changes. The Chinese
view of the world, from a position which is Chinese as well as Marxist-Leninist, involves a serious attempt to understand
the processes at work and how they affect China. It should be of interest to us not only as a guide to motives behind Beijing's
foreign policy, now and in the future, but in its own right as a serious perspective on the affairs of a world which we share
with the Chinese.
Since the sources and (where they exist) translations of many of the documents which I quote are not readily available,
I have provided a checklist of the more important ones. The reader who is interested in these textual matters should also
consult my Note on Sources which precedes the Checklist.
Two institutions have helped me in the most essential sense to produce this book. A year's fellowship at the Centre for
International Studies, London School of Economics, was generously extended by another year to enable me to complete the research
for it. And more recently as an associate fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam (an affiliate of the Institute
for Policy Studies, Washington DC), I have again been generously helped to pass another critical half-way point and complete
the writing of it. December 1973