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China's Foreign Policy in Historical Perspective

Courtesy Reuters

The American breakthrough in studies of Communist China during the last decade, despite all the difficulties of study from a distance, has given us a new capacity to appraise Peking's shifts of current policy. At the same time, our very success in understanding short-term developments tends to foreshorten our perspective, as though Chairman Mao's new China were actually as new as he so fervently exhorts it to be. If we ask the long- term question-What is China's tradition in foreign policy?-our query may provoke two counter-questions: Did the Chinese empire ever have a conscious foreign policy? Even if it did, hasn't Mao's revolution wiped out any surviving tradition?

To answer these questions is easy in theory, difficult in practice. Theoretically, since China has had two millennia of foreign relations (the longest record of any organized state), her behavior must have shown uniformities-attitudes, customs and, in effect, policies. In fact, however, the Chinese empire had no foreign office, and the dynastic record of "foreign policy" is fragmented under topics like border control, frontier trade, punitive expeditions, tribute embassies, imperial benevolence to foreign rulers and the like, so that it has seldom been pulled together and studied as an intelligible whole.

Again, one may theorize that Maoism is only the latest effort to meet China's problems of national order and people's livelihood on Chinese soil: the scene, the wherewithal, even the issues are largely inherited, and the violent shrillness of Mao's attack on Chinese tradition indicates to us how difficult he has found it to break free of that tradition. But for this very reason we cannot in practice look to Maoism for a realistic definition of China's foreign policy interests and aims over the centuries. Most of the record is simply condemned and brushed aside, except as parts of it may fit into current polemics. If Peking's foreign relations have left a still potent tradition, we have to discover it ourselves.

To deal with a major power without regard for its

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