Raj Swaroop
Understanding China from their International Relationships
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

Why should we in India study China’s foreign relations?

For governments, strategic thinkers and policy makers, dealing with China is a necessity that they cannot wish away. While opinions may vary, depending on one’s political orientation, the importance of knowing and the understanding the Chinese mind cannot be underestimated. A sound policy and thereby an effective relationship is built on understanding how other countries work, how they are guided by their historic and cultural backgrounds, constrained by their current political and economic realities and driven by their vision for the future.

Therefore, the most important part of any international relationship – be it friendly, adversarial, co-operative or competitive is to know the other party, understand their mindset and figure out their motivations. Therefore, as far as India is concerned it would be instructive to study how China conducts its foreign relations within its neighborhood and also elsewhere.

The India – China Relationship

Rightly or wrongly, for a generation of Indians, this relationship will always be viewed through the prism of the 1962 border conflict. The war, which Indians see as a betrayal by the Chinese, still evokes strong reactions in India even after 50 years.

Likewise, Chinese occupation of Tibet is also fresh in Indian minds, just as India’s asylum to the Dalai Lama irks China.

The major and minor points of contention are many. Aksai Chin, Arunachal Pradesh, Chinese infrastructural and building activity – especially the Tibet- Xinjiang Highway G219, China’s string of pearls strategy, the two countries competing overseas for strategic fuel and mineral resources, influence in Nepal, the Kashmir issue and visas – each of these matters has the potential to upset the existing equilibrium and sour bilateral relations. And we have not even mentioned the biggest festering problem yet. For more than 50 years now 3,500 kilometer long land border which is still a source of dispute, due to differing perceptions.

Considering all these issues and the other existing issues with neighbors like Pakistan and Bangladesh it is very common among Indian policy makers, media people and other intellectuals to take a view that India is in a very difficult neighborhood. The argument goes that one cannot choose their neighbors and therefore one has to adjust in the existing environment. This is a passive approach and fraught with danger. There is the risk that the other party will always set the agenda and India would find itself reacting to the other’s agenda.

We have seen in India’s case that even the relatively smaller neighbors like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are known to take hard stances without accommodating or accounting for India’s possible reactions. India seems to work under the assumption that being the bigger country, they have to make all the concessions, or else risk being seen as the neighborhood bully. This is a most noble sentiment. Only problem is that other countries are there to look after their own national interests, and quite rightly at that. Therefore, they will take all the concessions and still portray India as a neighborhood bully.

China, on the other hand, seems to have accepted that it is in a difficult neighborhood and deals with it appropriately according to their national interest. This essay attempts to study some examples from the recent past in which China has responded and overcome adverse situations due to their sustained diplomatic efforts coupled with effective use of trade as a carrot or stick.

First, let us take a look at China’s immediate geography.

China’s Neighborhood

China has no less than fourteen land neighbors. Mongolia, Russia and North Korea in the north and north-east, Vietnam, Laos and Burma to the south, India, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan to the south-west and the stans – Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to the west. Each of the neighbors wields varying influence and is home to vastly different political systems.

Bordering the East China Sea and South China Sea, there are five maritime ‘neighbours’, namely South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines and Malaysia.

Of these Russia, India and Japan are strong powers and potential adversaries that can hurt China. Russia as the successor of the former USSR retains a large portion of its nuclear arsenal and always has a hard edge to its foreign relations. In addition Russia maintains air bases and army bases in several of its sister states from the USSR – ranging from the Caucasus through the Black Sea up to Central Asia. While the Russia of today is no match for China, it still carries enormous clout with its nuclear arsenal, its intelligence agencies and almost inexhaustible energy resources. However the dynamics of the relationship have changed. In the heydays of the cold war, the USSR was the military super-power and China was a backward nation trying to stand on its feet after its internal disasters of the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution”. In the current century, China is the suzerain, an economic and military heavyweight, while slowly Russia becomes the vassal, the raw-material supplier and shrinks in terms of international importance.

Japan and China have historical animosities going back to at least the last two centuries. Imperial Japan had always viewed China as a colony. Japan after its industrialization in the early 20th century had viewed the backward and poor China as a source for raw materials and labour. Leading up to the 2nd World War, Japan had occupied Manchuria in the 1930’s and perpetrated many brutalities on the local Chinese population. While post war Japan is a pacifist state, and has supported economic reconstruction of China and much of the rest of Asia, there has always been tension under the surface. China has, from time to time recalled Japan’s wartime atrocities and Japan has always been apologetic. However, recent governments, especially under Junichiro Koizumi and the current dispensation under Shinzo Abe have shown that they are not worried about standing up to China for what they perceive as aggressive moves by China. Japan may be in decline economically but their technological advancements, capabilities and the utter devotion of their population to their motherland mean than China will always be wary of them. The ongoing spat for the Senkaku (Diaoyu to Chinese) islands has been a long festering issue and a symptom of their relationship.

As things currently stand, India has neither the hard power of Russia, nor the technological capability and national focus and discipline of Japan. India’s challenges are on all three fronts – Political, Economic and Military. To add to this, the national resolve in scattered and does not pull in one direction, except in times of grave crisis. Yet, as a 1.2 billion strong emerging economic power, with considerable soft power and good relations, it is a potential counter-weight to Chinese hegemony in Asia. India has not shown any urgency to resolve outstanding issues and such an approach has worked to China’s advantage. By maintaining non-committal positions on most issues, China chooses to ratchet up the pressure every now and then on India. Yet, China realizes that they do not want to make enmity again.

Even the smaller neighbors like Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam are no easy touch. Vietnam stood face to face in a border confrontation in 1979 with China and did not back down from its vastly bigger foe. Myanmar, the Central Asian republics, Mongolia and other countries which do not have open conflicts with China, or those who have resolved their historical conflicts continue to be wary of its designs and intent. And on top of all this is the constant United States presence in form of naval bases and the 7th Fleet. The only neighbors who are all weather friends are Pakistan in China’s South-West Corner and North Korea in its North-East corner – both unstable regimes at the best of times, armed with nuclear weapons.

So, if Indian intelligentsia, policy makers and media tend to think that India is in an unhelpful neighborhood, they should realize that China’s neighborhood is far more challenging and adversarial. There is constant external pressure from the neighbors. There is internal pressure arising due to the unequal development, income disparities and ethnic and cultural minorities trying to pull away from the central leadership. The boom in China is still restricted to the coastal provinces, while the vast hinterland in the west and southwest are still underdeveloped. About 150 – 160 Million people live below USD 1.25 a day, according to the World Bank. One of the biggest challenges of the new leadership is to do a “re-balancing” act with inequalities causing popular anger at corrupt officials. Yet, China has dealt with such an internal and external environment and fairly successfully at that. The key here is that China has acknowledged the reality, kept sight of its own objectives and made the necessary adjustments in their domestic and foreign policies.

With this brief background, we look at the following bilateral interactions of China with certain countries where they have demonstrated a mix of pragmatism, shrewdness and a remarkable understanding of the world around them.

The following narratives take the form of a brief description of the outstanding issue and how China resolved it. Then we examine the take-outs as a neutral observer from the whole episode.

Sino – Soviet Relationship Normalization

Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the Sino-Soviet relation followed distinct patterns of uneasy co-operation up to almost 1960, confrontation for the next decade, culminating in the1969 border clash on the Ussuri River and reconciliation in the last decade leading up to 1989.

When USA and China renewed relations in 1972 after the Nixon-Kissinger duo visited Chairman Mao, the neighborly relations with USSR became frosty. China engaged US to contain the Soviets, their nominal partners in communist ideology, by playing off the “far barbarians against the nearer ones”. However, after the war with Vietnam in 1979 China felt that “Soviet Imperialism” had been contained and it was time to recalibrate their earlier hostile relations.

In March 1982, Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev spoke at a public meeting. It was standard practice among Soviet leaders of that time to criticize and denounce their Chinese counterparts. Brezhnev did the same. What was not standard practice was that, at one point Brezhnev mentioned that people of USSR wished to improve relations with China and went on also to validate the People’s Republic of China’s sovereignty over Taiwan. China had always termed Taiwan as one of its “core” interests and sought recognition over its sovereignty over Taiwan & the One-China policy. China’s response to Brezhnev’s speech was simple and had two parts. They had noted Brezhnev’s speech’s contents. One – they rejected all accusations and criticisms. Second – as regards to improving relations, they said would watch Brezhnev’s actions on the ground if he is as good as his word. There itself a subtle response had been aired.

Chinese supreme leader Deng Xiaoping felt that the Afghanistan invasion had stretched USSR, whose economy was already bearing the strain of the Cold War. China also wanted to give appropriate signals to reach out and yet not concede advantage. Deng Xiaoping had conveyed to his foreign affairs team that the time was right to engage USSR and set the ground rules. If USSR would do the following tasks to build up trust with China, then China would be willing make a start towards normalcy of relations.

  1. Pull back its troops from the Mongolian border. About a million Soviet troops were stationed in Mongolia, near the China border at the time.
  2. Convince Vietnam to pull out its troops from Cambodia.
  3. Pull out totally of Afghanistan.

China saw the existing situation as dangerous to its security and territorial integrity and so they insisted that these conditions be fulfilled for them to consider normalization of relationship.

The first feeler was sent in the form of a non-official visit by a junior diplomat as though it was a routine visit to Chinese embassies of Moscow and Warsaw. There the Chinese position was stated verbally to the Soviets. The Soviets called them ‘preconditions’ and yet promised to think and respond. And so started a series of meetings and parleys in official, unofficial, bilateral and multilateral fora, where the diplomats of the two countries re-connected in various discussions.

The Soviets were slow to respond. Over a period of time, as China had anticipated, the internal economy of USSR was so weak and hollow that they could not sustain their external military adventures. The arms race during the cold war and expansions into other spheres of influence like space, just to keep up with the USA had sapped them of vital economic and manpower resources.

Eventually in early 1989, Eduard Shevardnadze, Foreign Minister (soon to be first president of Georgia) agreed to pull out troops from Mongolia. Between January and April 1989, Vietnam began conducting withdrawals from Cambodia. The Paris accord two years later, formalized the return of self-governance in Cambodia and exit of all foreign forces. Meantime, in February 1989 the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was conducted. Finally in May 1989, President Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing and engaged in formal discussions with Deng. Normalcy had returned and continued even after USSR collapsed and the Russian federation entered the picture.

Key take-outs

  1. China watches the speeches, writings and utterances of other world leaders carefully for subtle shifts in pattern, content and looks for subtle symbols.
  2. Watch your neighbor’s economic situations closely. Anticipate what could be the possible scenarios and adapt your behavior accordingly.
  3. While Deng had advised his diplomats to be flexible and not be under stress from the Soviet negotiators, he had clearly set the ground rules for the discussion. The 3 points above were non-negotiable. The lesson for India is to identify its non-negotiable points clearly. It should be a matter of policy doctrine, so that it percolates to all levels.
  4. In a speech last year, former Indian Ambassador G Parthasarathy attributed a certain observation to another diplomat Shyam Saran (watch the video from 11:38 to 12:38). Saran had observed that “In Chinese diplomatic behavior, they will insistently demand, sometimes obtain, explicit formulations from friend and adversary alike on issues of importance to their interest, but will rarely concede clarity and finality in any of their formulations reflecting the other side’s interest.” This is a tremendously insightful observation. In this episode, China has extracted 3 major actions from a superior adversary. Each of these three actions were time bound and verifiable actions in return for vague promises such as “normalization” and “good relations”. Normalization of relations could mean everything and nothing. This trait can be seen elsewhere too. In their relation with its smaller neighbors, for instance, their modus operandi can be summed up by the following phrase, which John F Kennedy is reported to have said of the Soviet’s negotiating tactics “What’s mine is mine; what’s yours is negotiable.”
  5. Note that China did not rush headlong into a strong position. Nor did they proffer a hand of friendship. Watchful and wary, without forgetting their original objectives, they make a series of moves to attain them.
  6. Patience is a virtue – especially when dealing with a more powerful adversary. It took 7 years countless official and unofficial discussions at bilateral and multilateral events for China to achieve their objectives and “normalize relations” on their own terms. Once they had established such a relation, it continued in the same vein with the Russian Federation which was the successor of Soviet Union. I can recall an Indian example. After the Pokhran tests of 1998 and consequent US sanctions, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh met with Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott 14 times within a space of 2 ½ years to normalize relations. It went a long way in convincing the US of India’s position.
  7. Persistence is also a virtue. Between 1982 and 1989, USSR had frequent leadership change – Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko and Gorbachev came and went. The USSR was also roiled by internal upheavals. New political and economic concepts were introduced – Glasnost and Perestroika were the buzzwords. Yet the Chinese diplomats and foreign policy specialists never lost sight of their long term objective.
  8. Afghanistan’s border with China (Wakhan corridor) is only about 100 km long. Cambodia shares no border with China. Yet, China made Soviet and Vietnam withdrawal from these countries as a pre-condition for engaging USSR. Why so? One can only make a guess after observing late events. Perhaps China wanted to deepen its influence in Pakistan and wanted USSR out of the way. While China and Pakistan always had strong and close relationship (like that of US and Israel), the Chinese investments in armaments and nuclear capacities in Pakistan started only in the 1990s. Similarly, while Vietnam has moved out of Cambodia, slowly the latter has become a Chinese client state in South East Asia. So perhaps the Chinese were thinking a decade or two in advance and were setting the ground to expand their influence and footprint in such a scenario
  9. Be convinced about your destiny. The Chinese believe that China is the centre of the universe and call them the “Middle Kingdom”. To them, their current rise is not a new phenomenon but a re-emergence after periodic turbulences. Their manifest belief is that they will be the world’s most important power one day. The Chinese leadership in this period believed that they are a growing power and USSR is a waning power (which was proved right at the end of the Cold War and collapse of USSR). Their vision if that China is not just an economic power but also a potential super-power. All their policies and actions are geared to make this vision a reality.


First Gulf War – The Story Of China’s Vote On UNSC Resolution 678


November 1990. The Middle East was in conflict once again. A few months earlier, Iraq, which had the world’s fourth largest armed forces at that time, had invaded the city-state of Kuwait. It was a no-contest. The invasion was complete in 2 days and the Kuwaiti royal family had fled to Saudi Arabia and lived in exile till the liberation.

USA under President George H.W. Bush was getting into the war mode after their ultimatums were ignored by Iraqi Leader Saddam Hussein. American stated position was that the Iraqi aggression was unacceptable and that Iraq should leave Kuwaiti territory or face the consequences. Economic sanctions under the auspices of the UN were already in place. However Iraq had refused to budge. Iraq had also rebuffed the Arab League which had tried to broker peace. US had meanwhile begun galvanizing opinion and popular support to form a coalition.

China’s view:

China, by that time had begun to see itself as a major country. As a permanent member in the UN Security Council, China saw itself as having an important role in safeguarding world peace and regional stability. Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms had been started only just more than a decade back – in 1979. It would take another decade for the first benefits to be apparent. China had a lot going against it and yet, China had the vision and belief that it is an important power in the world stage.

When the UN passed economic sanctions on Iraq (about 10 sanctions in all), China supported UN on each of these resolutions against Iraq. The sanctions did not have the desired effect and President Saddam Hussein was adamant in holding on to Kuwait. Therefore USA was working towards getting a United Nations resolution passed giving it for armed action to evict Iraq from Kuwait.

China’s stated position was that Iraq’s armed invasion was an act of unilateral and unprovoked aggression and that Iraq should withdraw from Kuwait. They also mentioned that there should be peace in the Middle East and no conflict. They had no other interest in the region, they stated.

It is important to note that China themselves were under sanctions in this period. The incident at Tiananmen Square in June 1989 had a massive impact on China’s foreign relations. United States and its allies had imposed a series of diplomatic and economic sanctions against China. The details of those sanctions varied from country to country, but in general they involved the suspension of high-level official visits, official development assistance and export credits, and sales of technological equipment. Yet China supported UN sanctions. Perhaps they had no choice but to do so, or risk being seen as an international pariah. But this fact was useful to them and they made a virtue out of this necessity as can be seen in events to follow.


Sequence of Events:

James Baker, US Secretary of State met Qian Qichen Chinese Foreign Minister (whom Henry Kissinger in “On China” regards as amongst the finest Foreign Ministers he has met) unofficially in Cairo as if by chance. Baker was on a trip to drum up support for the armed action that the US sees itself taking shortly provided Iraq does not withdraw. The diplomats could not meet officially since China was still under US sanctions for the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 (in his memoirs Qichen refers to the incident as “domestic turmoil”).

The primary topic of discussion was the Kuwait invasion and the subsequent crisis. The US was of the opinion that sanctions alone have not done the job and an armed response should be authorized by the UN. When asked about how long they think the sanctions should continue, China evaded the question. When asked if they would support a likely UNSC resolution which allowed the members to use “all means” to end Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, Qichen guessed and guessed correctly that US was seeking approval from a fellow UNSC permanent member to allow themselves the option of using force. China’s position remained that Iraq should withdraw and peace should reign in the Middle East. Cutting through the fog of diplomatic talk, this meant China did not approve of US using armed intervention and may possibly not support a UNSC resolution to that effect.

On discussions with Saudi Arabia, in exile government of Kuwait and Jordan, Qichen understood the dynamics of the region closely and got the impression that the situation was out of hand for Iraq, although each country’s motivations toward Iraq varied. For instance Kuwait, understandably wanted Iraq thrown out at any cost, Saudi Arabia had tried to be peace-maker in the region. This was also understandable considering they were the biggest nation among the Arabs and also the custodian of the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Jordan felt that Saddam Hussein’s demand about settling the Palestinian problem first and trying to relate it to Iraq and Kuwait had some merit. Jordan and Iraq had historically close ties both being Hashemite kingdoms born out of the former Ottoman Empire after World War I. The point is that even among the Gulf Arab countries, there were complex dynamics in play.

In Iraq, Qichen met Tariq Aziz, the Prime Minister prior to meeting Saddam Hussein. Aziz was worried about whether the US would commence armed action and the Chinese diplomat had dropped sufficient hints. Saddam Hussein however was defiant and likened Iraq and Kuwait to China and Taiwan. The Chinese diplomat pointed out the difference that Iraq had an embassy in Kuwait which was not the case for China and Taiwan. China insisted on their primary objective as peace in the Middle East and stated that the invasion and occupation of Kuwait was an act of aggression and had to be reversed. Hussein too was worried about American action.

On return, Baker again called Qichen and wanted to know China’s position on the proposed resolution. The US was trying to know China’s position even before passing a resolution. They hinted that they would not pass a resolution if China intended to veto it. China once again refused to be drawn into an opinion or commitment. China said they would have to see the resolution wordings before commenting on it. When Baker read out on telephone, Qichen played hardball again and said that China condemned Iraqi aggression but at the same time was committed to peace in the Middle East. This diplomatic cat and mouse game yielded no favorable result for the US. If their intention was to secure Chinese support, they had made no progress.

Eventually, on 29th November 1990, the UNSC noted that all the earlier resolutions had failed and sought vote on resolution 678 which stated that “Member States were authorized to use all necessary means to uphold and implement” measures so that  Iraq withdrew immediately and unconditionally to positions as they were on 1 August 1990. The five permanent members and ten non-permanent members voted on the resolution. The resolution was adopted by a margin of 12-2 with 1 abstention. Cuba and Yemen voted against the resolution and were defeated. The sole member who abstained was the People’s Republic of China.

The fact that war followed and Kuwait was liberated is common knowledge. This episode gives insight into how China walked the diplomatic tightrope and ended making no enemies and left the door open with both the opposing parties in the conflict. The reality today is that China is Iraq’s largest oil buyer and the two countries enjoy a very good relation both during the Saddam Hussein reign and thereafter.

Key take-outs

  1. Know your position and adhere to it strictly. Even in the matter of giving opinions – officially or unofficially. China’s official position was non-interference in others’ internal matters and it strictly maintained the position till the logical end, i.e. the vote.
  2. Evaluate the stakes carefully. What was China’s immediate interest in the situation? Safe expatriation of its nationals and other ethnic Chinese. The next goal oil supply. War would not help either of these objectives. Peace could be achieved by Iraqi withdrawal and hence their position.
  3. Let us consider the alternatives. What would China have achieved had it supported the US-led resolution for war? China would have been an also-ran in a coalition force of ten countries, probably contributing men and material and ended up with nothing tangible to show for. Moreover, the sanctions for the Tiananmen Square massacre were still in place against itself. Therefore China would have been in a delicate position among its domestic hardliners of having supported the US while getting no support from the US in return. By choosing not to vote for the resolution, China retained its individuality and showed it cannot be coerced by the US.
  4. At the same time, vetoing the motion and preventing the war would have made China an international pariah. Cuba opposed the motion, since they had historic enmity with US. Yemen had showed solidarity to their fellow ACC member. Both were non-permanent and were small countries that did not carry much weight and little to lose. Not so for China. By not vetoing, they gained moral high-ground and scored brownie points over the US later – showing that they supported US even though the US had not removed the sanctions against them and it was US turn to help China.
  5. On the other hand, by not endorsing the war, China always had a face-saver with Iraq, that they had tried their utmost to avoid war and bloodshed.By refusing to reveal their preference and also by even refusing to be drawn to giving an unofficial opinion, China maintained opacity and kept the US guessing. Rule – Never hand over anything on a platter, especially to a stronger counterpart.
  6. Big lesson – Neutrality and non-commitment can also be used for achieving strategic advantages. This may be called “active neutrality” as opposed to “passive neutrality”.



Taiwan Issue In The Light Of Other Bilateral Relations

The following episodes illustrate their tactical flexibility in what is basically a fixed position, China’s stand on the Taiwan question.

Before going into the following episodes, the “One China Policy” needs elaboration. The constitution of the People’s Republic of China states that “There is only one China in the world. Both the mainland and Taiwan belong to one China.” It therefore followed that countries seeking diplomatic relationship with China must break of all diplomatic relationship with Taiwan. This has been China’s consistent stand on the Taiwanese question and they have diligently pursued it ever since the founding of the People’s Republic of China by Chairman Mao Tse Tung on 1st October 1949. At that time only 11 countries in the world recognized China. They were USSR and its communist allies (Warsaw Pact countries). The rest of the world recognized Taiwan (officially the Republic of China) as “China”. From such a position, China has focused its diplomatic efforts towards their recognition and has also grown in economic and national strength. Eventually one by one most of the countries of the world recognized PRC and ceased diplomatic relationship with ROC, such that by today only 22 countries in the world have diplomatic relationship with Taiwan and the rest of the 172 officially recognize the PRC.


South Africa’s Official Relationship:

Apartheid policies at home had ensured that South Africa were an international outcast. However, the situation was changing in the early 1990s when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The government under FW De Klerk showed seriousness towards political settlement of the non-white people. They also indicated willingness to establish relationships with China, which until then had been non-existent.

China, as we are now aware of their approach, was cautious to begin with. They indicated that since South Africa had not yet abolished apartheid and because China was opposed to racism and discrimination of any form, they could not have any official relationship. China stated that political settlement towards an equitable state of affairs for all South Africans should continue and only then would arrive a right time for discussions.

Eventually, abolishment of racist policies in South Africa led to initial tentative contacts in establishing trade relations and cultural institutes. Gradually both sides felt that it was time to take the next logical step. This was when China stated their One China Policy.

South Africa was in a dilemma now. While China’s growing economic heft and importance on the world stage meant that they could not be ignored, South Africa had a special relationship with Taiwan. Both the isolated countries had come closer during their tough times. Taiwan had a booming trade with South Africa and had several investments. There were also generous aid packages. With South Africa emerging out of isolation in 1991, they needed all the aid that they could get. They stated that they could not exit the Taiwanese relationship overnight.

Chinese responded with great practical sense. They understood the mood of their counterpart. They showed their understanding by not pushing hard. Meantime, they strengthened trade and also gave aid. China also clearly stated that their condition was cessation of diplomatic and official relationship only. Trade with Taiwan could continue even after recognition of PRC, if it happened. By such an approach, they showed empathy with a developing country ending isolation on the international stage and also showed patience.

Meantime trade ties grew and Nelson Mandela came to power as the first black President of South Africa. Both China and Taiwan had been supportive of Mandela’s African National Congress party. However Taiwan had also supported the apartheid regime. With China’s involvement increasing, Taiwan was finally edged out. In December 1997/ January 1998 (around the time of Hong Kong’s reunification) South Africa closed their embassy in Taipei and announced the cessation of diplomatic ties. Diplomatic relationship with China was then established without further problems.

France’s Armament Sale:

France is one of the major western powers and has an independent view on most world affairs. Although, nominally an ally of USA and UK the other major western democracies, France does not hesitate to take different positions on several international issues. France had ceased recognition to Taiwan in 1964. Trade continued unhindered, as in the case of most other countries. France is also one of the major suppliers of weapons and armaments to many countries.

In 1991, France intended to sell a number of escort vessels to Taiwan. China objected to the sale on account of perceived security threat from across the Taiwan Strait. France had responded with the following points.

  1. While US were already selling ships and naval equipment, why should France is stopped from doing so?
  2. The government of France could not stop a private commercial enterprise from pursuing their business.
  3. The expected revenues from the sale were vital to the French ship-building industry which was going through a tough phase.
  4. The escort ships were purely defensive and cannot be considered as offensive capability. Therefore there was no threat to China.

While the Chinese still objected, and conveyed that bilateral relations would come under strain, France had gone ahead and concluded the sale. The sale was reported to be controversial for alleged kickbacks to some parties, but that is outside the scope of this paper.

In 1992, China came to be aware that French aircraft company Dassault was negotiating a sale of Mirage 2000 fighter jets to Taiwan. China protested and contended that the sale was not “defensive” and amounted to arming Taiwan, which was a direct security threat on the mainland, as China perceived it.

China got to work quickly perhaps from their earlier experience. France had desperately needed the earlier sale. Therefore on this occasion, China tried to entice France with economic and trade benefits. They showed interest in USD 2 Billion worth of commodities purchase, if the aircraft deal would be scrapped. China also offered up to possibly 50 co-operative projects with French technology, material or design, having a total possible worth of USD 15 Billion. France however failed to take the bait and went ahead with the aircraft sale, which was said to be worth USD 4 Billion.

As a punitive measure China scrapped several projects in which they had enlisted French co-operation, no matter what the costs or consequences. Large scale and high value projects including those in the fields of nuclear technology, subway and rail construction, commodity purchase etc were put on hold. All diplomatic contact was stopped. Official relationship existed only in name and practically ceased to exist. This standoff continued until the next year when the legislative elections of 1993 led to the right-wing parties gaining on the socialists in France. The new administration gave an assurance to China that they would “not arm Taiwan”. Only after the assurance and follow-up did normal relationship resume.


Lee Teng Hui’s visit to USA:

This incident which was sparked off by the visit of the Taiwanese President Lee Teng Hui’s visit to was referred as the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-1996. The first two Taiwan Crises happened in 1954 and 1958 after some artillery exchange and shelling between PRC and Taiwan.

In mid-1995 Lee Teng Hui accepted an invitation from his alma mater Cornell University, New York to speak at a gathering there. China had immediately objected and protested that such a visit would compromise the “One China Policy” that the US had endorsed in 1979 when opening official diplomatic relationship with China.

Deterioration of relations

While it seems like an over-reaction, for China it was a “core issue”. Typically China cancelled or delayed a number of diplomatic, technological and trade initiatives. During Lee’s visit US took care not to display any official symbols or insignia like flags, seals and anthems. Lee went to US which was in itself a symbolic step for Taiwan after 17 years of isolation. He then delivered a speech at his alma mater Cornell University on 9/10th June 1995. China claimed that Lee’s references to “Republic of China on Taiwan” were an affront to the One China policy. US had maintained that this was a private visit. This did not go well with China, for soon afterwards, they retaliated with force.

They issued a series of communiqués denouncing the visit of Lee. Going one step further, between 21st and 26th July, China announced and conducted a series of missile tests and live firing exercises. The missiles were all of middle range and nuclear capable. This appeared to be an intimidation, pure and simple, aimed at sending a threat to Taiwan and an indirect message to the US.

For a second and also third time China tested missiles and conducted exercises, each time getting progressively closer and closer to Taiwan and also mobilizing divisions of the People’s Liberation Army close to the Taiwan Strait. The third exercise was done in March 1996 during the time of Taiwan’s election to deter the public from voting for Lee.

When the US recognized China and ceased diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, they also passed the Taiwan Relations which states that the US shall “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” and which requires the US to “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

When China engaged in such a show of aggression, the US Seventh Fleet comprising of the famous aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk and various other ships was sent to the area to act as a deterrent. The Seventh Fleet however stopped short of entering the Taiwan Strait. The US 7th Fleet entered the Taiwan Strait in1950 and led the Chinese into North Korea, precipitating the Korean war, which to this date is technically not over. Perhaps the US was mindful of that. Eventually, the situation cooled down after that.

In the Taiwan elections, Lee won with a resounding mandate. If China’s attempt had been to frighten the Taiwanese people, they responded in defiance and not fear. It appeared that China had distinctly had the worse of this exchange. The general opinion was that China was needlessly aggressive even conceding that there had been a “provocation”.

In the next few interactions China asked US how they intended to deal with “the problem of visits by Taiwan officials”. They forced US to concede on the following points.

  1. Only personal visits
  2. No official protocol, emblems or symbols
  3. Only few visits under special circumstances would be allowed


Eventually in 1998, US still under Bill Clinton declared the 3 Nos, probably because they did not want to be drawn into another’s war.

  • No to Taiwan independence
  • No to 2 China Policy or 1 China 1 Taiwan Policy
  • No to Taiwan in any official international forum


    Key take-outs

  1. Economic and Political clout go hand in hand. China did not hesitate to use its economic and trade potential in international negotiations. Flaunting their one billion strong consumer market, they had offered, denied, threatened and disrupted economic activity. Few governments like to lose business/ economic progress. The power of the “big buyer” is harnessed at all times. A big buyer with a big wallet carries a substantial clout, at least during the courtship. Contrastingly, India has been loath to exercise their economic and trade muscle when dealing with troublesome neighbors, to its own detriment.


  2. On what is a “core issue”, there is no compromise. Period. For India, it could be Kashmir.
  3. Identify, define and make “core issues” as a matter of policy.
  4. The common element to the three events is Taiwan. While South Africa is a developing country, France is an established Western democratic power and US, the sole super-power. The methods used by China were different. The results were different; however there was no compromise on the core issue that China identified.
  5. In 1996, Bill Clinton facing election chose to be aggressive and had the US Navy counter China. While in 1998, middle of his term and facing increasing Islamic jihad and domestic issues, he took a different route and offered the 3 Nos. This goes to show that the election year rhetoric of politicians and their subsequent actions on the same issues may have variance. It is important to recognize the distinction.
  6. By getting US to set the rule of 3 Nos and abide by them, China scored an important victory, although it came out second best in this episode.
  7. As for France, their conceded ground and have not sold armaments to Taiwan ever since.
  8. China had used the classic 4 methods of persuasion as per Indian Shastras – Sāma, Dāna, Bheda, Danda in different circumstances effectively.



So far in these episodes, we can observe the Chinese interactions with USSR, US, Iraq, Kuwait, South Africa and France.

Two of the countries were super-powers. France was and advanced western democracy while South Africa, a large backward African country emerging from isolation. Iraq was an Arab dictatorship known for aggression in the region and Kuwait a tiny petro-rich city-state. China demonstrated flexibility, foresight and resolve in dealing with this widely differing counterparts.

The events which had led to the diplomatic engagements we have discussed were all uniquely different from one another. This reflects the vast complexity of the situations that a leading country in the world is expected to handle.

The Chinese approach to diplomatic and international relations is clearly unique. They see themselves as a once great power whose time to dominate the world affairs has arrived again. They steadfastly believe in non-interference in others affairs and also demand the same from others. In third party disputes, they do not state their preferences or opinions openly and nor do they take sides with one view or other. Guarded and careful, they prefer the incremental approach. At the same time, what they say may not be what they mean. Clearly it is a non-linear approach where there is a lot of emphasis on reading between the lines, sending and receiving subtle signals, saving face and letting the other save face. For Westerners and even fellow Asians the Chinese way may not be easy to comprehend and there may be difficulties on this account.