At a national meeting on diplomatic work in August 2004, China’s president Hu Jintao reiterated that China will continue its “independent foreign policy of peaceful development,” stressing the need for a peaceful and stable international environment, especially among China’s neighbors, that will foster “mutually beneficial cooperation” and “common development.” This policy line has varied little in intent since the People’s Republic was established in 1949, but the rhetoric has varied in its stridency to reflect periods of domestic political upheaval.
At its inception, the People’s Republic had a close relationship with the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc nations, sealed with, among other agreements, the China-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance signed in 1950 to oppose China’s chief antagonists, the West and in particular the United States. The 1950–53 Korean War waged by China and its North Korea ally against the United States, South Korea, and United Nations (UN) forces has long been a reason for bitter feelings.
By the late 1950s, relations between China and the Soviet Union had become so divisive that in 1960 the Soviets unilaterally withdrew their advisers from China. The two then began to vie for allegiances among the developing world nations, for China saw itself as a natural champion through its role in the Non-Aligned Movement and its numerous bilateral and bi-party ties. By 1969 relations with Moscow were so tense that fighting erupted along their common border. China then lessened its anti-Western rhetoric and began developing formal diplomatic relations with West European nations.
Around the same time, in 1971, that Beijing succeeded in gaining China’s seat in the UN (thus ousting the Republic of China on Taiwan), relations with the United States began to thaw. In 1973 President Richard M. Nixon visited China. Formal diplomatic relations were established in 1978, and the two nations have experienced more than a quarter century of varying degrees of amiable or wary relations over such contentious issues as Taiwan, trade balances, intellectual property rights, nuclear proliferation, and human rights.
In October 2005, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Beijing at the invitation of the minister of national defense and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, Cao Gangchuan. Cao and Rumsfeld exchanged views on regional and international issues as well as on the future development of bilateral relations between their nations and armed forces. They agreed to work toward placing military relations on a level “commensurate with the relations with the two countries.”
China’s relations with its Asian neighbors have become stable during the last decades of the twentieth century. Despite a border war with India in 1962 and general distrust between the two (mostly over China’s close relationship with Pakistan and India’s with the former Soviet Union), in the early 2000s relations between the world’s two largest nations have never been more harmonious. China had long been a close ally of North Korea but also found a valuable trading partner in South Korea and eventually took a role in the early 2000s as a proponent of “six-party talks” (North Korea, South Korea, Russia, Japan, the United States, and China) to resolve tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
On November 15, 2005, Hu Jintao visited Seoul and spoke of the importance of both countries’ contributions for regional peace and cooperation in economic development. Japan, with its large economic and cultural influences in Asia, is seen by China as its most formidable opponent and partner in regional diplomacy. The two sides established diplomatic relations in 1972, and Japanese investment in China was important in the early years of China’s economic reforms and ever since.
Having fought two wars against Japan (1894–95 and 1936–45), China’s long-standing concern about the level of Japan’s military strength surfaces periodically, and criticism of Japan’s refusal to present a full version of the atrocities of World War II in its textbooks is a perennial issue. China has stable relations with its neighbors to the south. A border war was fought with one-time close ally Vietnam in 1979, but relations have improved since then. A territorial dispute with its Southeast Asian neighbors over islands in the South China Sea remains unresolved, as does another dispute in the East China Sea with Japan.
The end of the long-held animosity between Moscow and Beijing was marked by the visit to China by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989. After the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union, China’s relations with the Russian Federation and the former states of the Soviet Union became more amicable. A new round of bilateral agreements was signed during reciprocal head of state visits. As in the early 1950s with the Soviet Union, Russia has again become an important source of military matériel for China, as well as for raw materials and trade. Friendly relations with Russia have been an important advantage for China, offsetting its often uneasy relations with the United States.
Relations with Europe, both Eastern and Western, generally have been friendly in the early twenty-first century, and, indeed, close political and trade relations with the European Union nations have been a major thrust of China’s foreign policy in the 2000s. In November 2005, President Hu Jintao visited the United Kingdom, Germany, and Spain and announced China’s eagerness to enter into greater political and economic cooperation with its European partners.
Although committed to good relations with the nations of the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, in the twenty-first century China finds perhaps the greatest value in these areas as markets and sources of raw materials. The years of solidarity with revolutionary movements in these regions have long been replaced by efforts to cultivate normal diplomatic and economic relations.