Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

Tracking Chinese diplomacy


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Afro-Asian conference.

Mains level : Paper 2- Rise of China and changes in diplomacy.

We are no stranger to the assertive nature of China in geopolitics. But had it always been the same? This article captures the transformation of the nature of Chinese diplomacy. Two personalities that had a profound impact on the nature of the diplomacy of that country are Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. Each of them imparted special characteristic to diplomacy. Now, that all seems lost from present China. Read the article to know about the contribution of two personalities and trends in Chinese diplomacy now.

Zhou Enlai: Preference for Persuasion and compromise

“All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.” – Zhou Enlai

  • If Mao Zedong represented the crude face of Chinese communism, then Zhou was the epitome of its refinement.
  • Zhou preferred to seduce his opponents through word and gesture in the pursuit of national self-interest.
  • Force was used rarely, and only when all other means of persuasion failed.
  • So, amid Korean War in 1950, when the U.S. Army crossed into North Korea, Zhou Enlai delivered message against crossing 38th Parallel through Indian Ambassador, instead publicly declaring this.
  • He chose to give diplomacy a chance.

Role in First Indochina War

  • In 1954, the Chinese made their entry onto the world stage in Geneva.
  • The Vietnamese were winning against the French in the First Indochina War.
  • And the Americans were preparing to intervene fearing that another “domino” would fall to communism.
  • China’s self-interest lay in ending this war while denying the U.S. a foothold in its backyard.
  • Zhou’s strategy was to undermine western unity.
  • His watchwords were persuasion and compromise.
  • He even gave “face” to the French who had just lost to the Vietnamese in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, by travelling the “extra mile” to meet Prime Minister of France to secure the peace.

Low profile at Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung

  • In 1955, at the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Zhou used the same tactics to pursue another objective: Developing relations with leaders of the Afro-Asian countries.
  • He deliberately kept a low profile, allowing Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Indonesian President Sukarno to take the lead.
  • His tactic, he reported to Mao, was “not to be involved in provocative or disruptive debate”.
  • His guidance to his team was to “strive to expand the united front of the world peace force.
  • He also instructed the team to create conditions for establishing diplomatic work or diplomatic relations between China and a number of Afro-Asian countries.

So, how Zhou shaped China’s foreign policy?

  • Zhou’s style of diplomacy came to define Chinese foreign policy over the next half-century.
  • The strategy was consistent: avoid isolation, build solidarity with non-aligned countries, divide the West.
  • The tactics were called ‘united front’ — isolate the main threat by building unity with all other forces.
  • Under Zhou, diplomats of calibre kept handled the task of diplomacy with skill and held firm even in storms like the Cultural Revolution.
  • When the tide rose, these diplomatic fishermen gathered the fish — expanding China’s global presence and gaining international acceptability.
  • When it ebbed, they saw to it that the ship remained firmly moored.
  • They navigated the Cold War, playing the Soviets against the Americans.
  • To relieve pressure, Zhou opened border talks with the Soviets and channels to the U.S.
  • Public animosity did not deter him from turning on the full extent of his diplomatic skills on either Alexei Kosygin or Henry Kissinger.
  • In February 1972, he persuaded U.S. President Richard Nixon to abandon Taiwan.
  • It was a staggering act of diplomacy.

Deng Xiaoping: hide our capacities and bide our time

“Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”

  • In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping took up the reins.
  • Deng supplemented Zhou’s strategy with a “24-Character Strategy” of his own(the above quote).

Character of Chinese diplomacy in Deng Xiaoping’s time

  • “24-Character Strategy” became the ‘mantra’ of Chinese diplomacy.
  • Chinese diplomats measured their words and kept their dignity.
  • They projected power but rarely used more words than needed.
  • They were masters of their brief because Zhou had taught them that the real advantage in negotiations was to know more than the other side.
  • They flattered acquaintances, calling them “old friends”.
  • They built relationships by making it a point to engage the less friendly interlocutors with greater courtesies than friends.
  • Behind closed doors, they were tireless in reducing opposition through negotiation.
  • And skillfully in putting the onus of responsibility for failure on the other party.
  • And occasionally, they would hold out a veiled threat with a look of concern rather like an uncle anxious to save you from embarrassment.
  • But they rarely offended.

Tumultuous period of 1980s and 1990s and entry into WTO

  • The 1980s and 1990s were the peak for Chinese diplomacy.
  • The U.S. President George Bush and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited China.
  • They normalised relations, settled borders and won hearts and minds through general financial help.
  • So effective was Chinese diplomacy that the Americans even broke their own sanctions imposed after the 1989 ‘Tiananmen Incident’, within a matter of four weeks.
  • A decade later, the U.S. and the European Union bought into Chinese assurances that it would soon transition to a market economy.
  • And helped steer China into the World Trade Organization.

After Deng Xiaoping: Arrogance and threats in diplomacy

  • Deng died in 1997. China prospered just as Deng had imagined.
  • It began to occupy centre stage in world diplomacy, but the basics of Chines diplomacy started changing
  • A new generation of diplomats, with knowledge of the English language and a careerist mindset, has started to destroy the foundations set down by Zhou and Deng.
  • Arrogance has replaced humility.
  • Persuasion is quickly abandoned in favour of the stick when countries take actions contrary to Chinese wishes.
  • The Chinese pursue unilateralism instead of compromise in the South China Sea.
  • In place of ‘united front’ tactics, they are bent on creating irritations simultaneously with multiple China neighbouring countries.
  • Avenging the ‘Century of Humiliation’ that endured in the hands of western imperial powers from roughly 1839-1840 to 1949 is on their mind now.
  • To avenge that they adopt a one-size-fits-all approach.
  • But they forget that much of the world has done nothing to China and, indeed, shares a similar historical experience.
  • Statements of fact or reasoned opinion are seen by them as insult or humiliation.
  • Foreign governments are educated about their responsibilities in managing the media and the narrative, even as the Chinese manipulate the same media to serve their purposes.
  • They expect to receive gratitude for everything they do, including handling COVID-19, as if it was only done with the foreigner in mind.
  • The veneer of humility has thinned.
  • The reserves of goodwill are fast depleting. The ship seems to be adrift at sea.

Questions related to China has been a recurrent theme in the UPSC papers. Consider the question asked in 2017  “China is using its economic relations and positive trade surplus as a tool to develop potential military power status in Asia. In light of this statement discuss its impact on India and her neighbours.”


In the post-pandemic world, India and the rest of the world will have to reckon the role played by China in the pandemic. In such a changing scenario India will do well to take note of the changing trends of Chinese diplomacy.

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