‘When China needed NATO against Russia’
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 09 Jul , 2022

Since the Chinese communists took control of Beijing in 1949, despite China proclaiming “self-reliance” in foreign policy Beijing has always relied upon either alliance or siding with one of the two superpowers. Current Western apprehensions that the rapidly growing Sino-Russian strategic partnership is aimed at jointly challenging the US-led world order are misconceived. For there is more to the China-Russia “truly no-limit” relationship than their mutual rejection of a hostile America. 

On reading my recent write-up “From China with Love…,” a reader pointed out there was an article with the same title published half a century ago. On reading the article, I found the similarity between the two was only in the title. Interestingly, however, the two pieces not only do strike a sharp contrast in the content but the contrast further speaks volumes about how international politics in general and China’s foreign policy, in particular, have come full circle.

Particularly striking in the 1973 article in the words of its author, C. L. Sulzberger, was the observation that the “most fascinating and yet unnoticed in the new relationship between China and Western Europe” was the “rapidly shifting diplomatic pattern.”Another remarkable dimension in the Europe-China unfolding relationship at the time was that several of the NATO member nations had a history of being at war with Russia, sometimes more than once, but only a few had been at war with China.

Therefore, despite China (too) being communist, these European countries had no or little inherited tradition of hostility with China.Except for three NATO member countries – Spain, Portugal, and Ireland – the remaining thirteen West European member nations were quick to establish relations with the P R China (recall here the United States would need six more years to establish normal diplomatic ties between Washington and Beijing).

Speaking of the striking contrast between now and half a century ago, Beijing seemed in a hurry to consolidate political and economic relations with West Europe. There were several factors driving the Chinese growing interest in the West. 1) Western Europe sits right on the flank of the Soviet bloc which suited “Beijing’s book to draw closer to the area and encourage bits strength and unity of purpose”; 2) Owing to the fear of the Soviet military pressure, China was quickly switching its interests from the Eastern to Western Europe and Beijing deliberately refused to receive visitors from the Warsaw Pact countries; 3) As Sulzberger had observed, with Sino-American relations improving “Beijing was particularly supportive and pleased to see the US-NATO dispositions continuing in the Soviet Union’s backyard.”

On the other hand, back then, in the early to mid to late 1970s, in the absence of economic and trade ties with West European nations, China was investing heavily in consolidating its political relationships. For example, during a visit to Germany the Chinese foreign minister Ji Pengfei (Chi Peng-fei), who replaced the legendary Marshal Chen Yi after the latter passed away on January 6, 1972) had publicly declared support for the German reunification. Additionally, in what was then seen as a sort of diplomatic coup for Chinese diplomacy, President Pompidou of France announced a visit to Beijing later in the year – the first visit to communist China by a West European head of state.

Furthermore, today, while the world instantaneously took notice of the China and Russia joint statement of February 4 declaring their “no limit” commitment to deepen bilateral cooperation in all fields, it is unfortunate that no one has been paying attention to the factors compelling the world’s two most powerful military powers after the US, to “slowly and surely cement their relationship, especially on the economic, diplomatic, and military fronts.” According to a recent joint commentary by three international affairs experts, the “Chinese-Russian alliance aims largely at defending the two countries’ regional and international interests, which are in constant expansion.” 

Indeed it is an ironic reversal of roles to see China and Russia on the way to forming some kind of alliance. When compared with two decades of extreme Russia-China hostilities in the 1970s and 1980s respectively, it is an even bigger irony that the majority of the Chinese people today favor Russia more than the EU and certainly more than the United States. Of course, the same Chinese media survey conducted last December also showed that this was the first time in the last fifteen years that the annual Chinese survey did not list China-US ties as the country’s most important bilateral ties. Moreover, in the context of rapidly changing geopolitics today, it is of greater significance that for the first time the Sino-Russian ties have topped the Chinese annual survey.

So, what has caused such a decline in the China-US bilateral ties and a good turnaround in China-Russia relations?

It is pertinent to recall, that notwithstanding the fact that Russia and China restored diplomatic relations in 1989, the two countries followed the trajectory of closer cooperation only since the Soviet Union collapsed. Or to be geopolitically more specific, Beijing and Moscow began more efficient coordination in international affairs in the late 1990s following the Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order. As some analysts have been emphasizing, the Russia-China agreement on the Joint Declaration in 1997 “laid the foundations for the actively evolving multi-polar world that is currently transpiring before our eyes. [My emphasis].

In the words of a Chinese academic, China and Russia have been maintaining positive interactions for many years, including the personal relationship between the top leaders, diplomatic ties, and economic cooperation. “On the geopolitical ground, especially when they faced West-led containment on issues such as human rights and democracy, the two countries became a major force to challenge the West-led hegemony and unilateralism at the global stage,” Yang Jin added. Explaining growing trade as one indicator of why Russia and China were gradually compelled to move closer to each other, Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Centre recently wrote: “China’s share in Russia’s foreign trade grew from 10.5% in 2013 to 16.7% in 2019 and 18.3%in the pandemic-struck 2021.”

In a bizarre twist, as the Chinese wolf warrior diplomacy-style belligerence accuses NATO of creating instability in the Indo-Pacific, look at how Sulzberger described the “most fascinating” pattern evolving in the China-NATO equation fifty years ago: “There is no doubt that at this moment Chinese diplomacy favors any move that will strengthen the West European military position, thus causing Moscow more concern.” How ironic the geopolitics of the war in Europe today is forcing China to blame “global NATO” for its politics of expansionism. With no one to counter NATO, a key lesson of the Russia-Ukraine war, at least for Beijing is, to never let NATO-like forces come up near or surround China.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Hemant Adlakha

is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.

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