Foreign Relations of the PRC: The Legacies and Constraints of China’s International Politics since 1949

sutterAuthor(s): Robert Sutter

ISBN: 978-1-4422-2015-7 (978-1-4422-2016-4 Paperback)

Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Year: 2013

Price: $103.00 ($41.00 Paperback)

Reviewed by Yang Wei, Assistant Professor in History, University of Colorado (USA)


The rise of China as a major world power over the past two decades has posed to the academia the key question of how to evaluate its impact on the existing world order. Many scholars believe that the expanding Chinese economic, military, and political influence would inevitably entail a change in leadership in the Asia-Pacific region; this would eventually lead to a power shift in world affairs in the context of the decline of the United States and the rise of China. Sutter questions this assessment. The book investigates, in a chronological order, the impact, legacies, and constraints of the foreign relations of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1949. It argues that “China’s rise has not and probably will not result in the regional and international power shift” (p.1).

The book offers two main reasons to support its argument. First is the inconsistency between China’s diplomatic rhetoric and its actual behavior in foreign relations. Despite China’s claim to follow correct principles with moralist vocabularies, Sutter finds “repeated changes, shifts in emphasis, and adjustments” in China’s foreign policies that indicate rather incoherent foreign strategy. For Sutter, an observation of PRC’s diplomatic behavior suggests continual shifts between violent revolutionary behavior and pragmatic accommodations to the existing world order since Mao Zedong’s reign. Mao’s legacy was further steered by Deng Xiaoping after 1976 towards more pragmatic, interest based foreign policies that sought advantage in alternative overtures to the United States and the Soviet Union. Such dramatic shifts of behavioral patterns increased the unpredictability of China’s behavior. The conflicting legacies from both Mao and Deng shaped the current Chinese foreign policies that are assertive, coercive, disruptive, intimidating, and sometimes violent, especially in the pursuit of sovereignty claims and security interests. For Sutter, these behavioral characteristics encumbered China’s rising influence in regional and world affairs.

The second reason for the book’s more negative judgment of China’s international influence lies in the shortcomings of China’s diplomatic activities in its eastern and southern frontiers, the areas of crucial importance to Chinese leaders’ strategic concerns. Sutter maintains that China’s unsuccessful engagements with these regions, whether economic, diplomatic, or military, are shaped by the legacies of past violence and unpredicted shifts toward neighboring countries. Recent Chinese assertiveness, coercion, and violence towards Japan and Southeast Asian countries raised widespread wariness, while China gains in wealth and power thanks to its booming domestic economy.

The study finds the Chinese party-state apparatus responsible for fostering a positive image of its foreign relations that is far from reality; this gap between propaganda and reality hampers China’s ability to acknowledge the grievances and concerns of its neighbors. This inability is reinforced by the intensified “victim mentality” among China’s elite, who bears grudge over the humiliations China suffered at the hands of the foreign powers during the nineteenth century and the most of twentieth century. This victim mentality at times makes China overreact to foreign actions; and such overreaction in turn strengthens the concerns of China’s neighbors and the United States.

China’s regional influence is also limited by the overwhelming priority Chinese leaders give to domestic problems, which undermines China’s willingness to undertake risks, costs, or commitments in relation to regional or broader “common goods.” Based on the analysis of these problems, Sutter contends that China still has a long way to go before it can seriously challenge U.S. leadership in the Asia-Pacific region.

Chapter 1 outlines the question, scope, and argument of the book. Chapters 2, 3, and 4, document the historical trajectory of PRC’s foreign relations spanning over six decades. These chapters demonstrate major shifts of behavioral patterns marked by inconsistency and unpredictability in diplomatic goals, means, and effects.
— 1949-1953. This period saw China’s strong support for world revolution against the U.S. Miscalculation resulted in war with United States in Korea.
— 1954-1956. China started echoing Soviet led peaceful coexistence and improved its relations with other countries such as India.
— 1958-1965. Severe domestic policy disaster is accompanied with China’s aggressive international behavior. Soviet Union’s critique of China’s radical communist experiment and irrational diplomatic action led to the split of the two countries. Soviet ended aid in 1960, and the competition between the two countries expanded from the communist world to newly independent developing countries and insurgents resisting colonial rule.
China’s efforts to support foreign groups and nations failed to make effective, lasting impact. For instance, support to Indonesian communists ended in a bloody purge and the death of half a million ethnic Chinese.
— 1966-1968. The heyday of the Chinese Cultural Revolution witnessed yet another dramatic change in China’s foreign relations. The senior officials in the foreign ministry was replaced by more radical revolutionaries. The Chinese mob, or the Red Guards, assaulted Soviet diplomats and burned down the British mission. China’s relations with most countries suffered serious setbacks.
— 1969-1978. Soviet military pressure and nuclear threat forced China to ally with the United States which for its own reasons was seeking reconciliation. Corporation between China and the US sustained the intense leadership struggle in China and the ascendance of Deng Xiaoping in 1978.
— 1979-1989. China continued to maneuver for advantage between the United States and the Soviet Union, and found the relations with the US more favorable.
— 1989-2001. China employed pragmatic means to struggle with the boycott imposed by the West after the Tiannamen crackdown in 1989, and the decline of its strategic importance after the Cold War. China’s assertive claim to Taiwan and territories in the South China Sea alienated many neighbors. Whereas China sought to improve its relations with nearby Asian neighbors, the attack against perceived U.S. hegemony persisted.
— 2002-2012. China moderated its objection to U.S alliance in the Asia-Pacific and broadened its reassurance efforts to include the U.S. Since 2009, there has been a upsurge of Chinese opposition to U.S. security and other policies in the region, and more provocative foreign policies with its neighbors. The Chinese assertiveness undermined its influence and promoted tensions in this region, especially over disputed territories in the East and South China Seas.

Chapter 5 and 6 examine the patterns of decision making of the Chinese elite and their world view, as well as China’s changing importance in world affairs since 1949. Sutter particularly explores the world view as shown in Chinese public media which presents the world as full of competitive, unscrupulous, and duplicitous governments seeking selfish interest at the cost of China and others. This dark world view underlines China’s need for enhanced military capabilities, greater economic power, and sustained political unity.

Chapter 7, 8 and 9 deal with specific foreign relations; chapter 7 is devoted to the Sino-US relations. Chapter 8 discusses countries located around China’s rim, including Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Southeast Asia, Southern Asia, Russia and Central Asia. Chapter 9 addresses developing and developed countries, ranging from the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Europe, Canada, to the Arctic and Antarctic.

The concluding chapter recapitulates the major findings of the book and evaluates China’s growing role in Asian and world affairs.

Sutter’s book is a timely contribution that provides a thorough survey on PRC’s foreign relations based on solid observation of the drastic shifts and unpredictability in China’s behavior patterns since 1949, which, as the author argues, constrain China’s current program to exert greater influence in the Asia-Pacific. This book is recommended for general readers as well as researchers looking for updated studies of China’s foreign relations.

Suggested Citation:

Yang Wei (2016), Review of “Foreign Relations of the PRC: The Legacies and Constraints of China’s International Politics since 1949”, by Robert Sutter, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 9, no. 5.