China’s foreign policy in the 1970s had important historical antecedents. On many occasions during the 20th century, the world revolutionary movement did not handle the contradiction between the defense of the socialist state and the promotion of revolution correctly. After World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, as revolutionary struggles in many countries were defeated and the worldwide struggle for socialism became confined to one country, the Soviet Union, the CPSU became overly cautious in its promotion of and support for bold revolutionary moves throughout the world. Beginning in the 1930s, overestimating bourgeois nationalist forces, and underestimating revolutionary communist forces—peasant and proletarian—became the norm, and defense of Soviet socialism trumped the advance of the world revolution for decades to come.
The CCP had extensive experience with the Soviet Union’s incorrect handling of these questions. From the 1920s to the 1940s, Stalin and the Comintern discounted the revolutionary potential in China and viewed Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang (GMD) as the best bet for securing what the Soviet Union considered a crucial goal—a stable and friendly government in China. Thus, Soviet and Communist International (Comintern) representatives in China pushed, and imposed where possible, a political line of preserving an alliance between the CCP and GMD at all costs.
Between 1927 and 1930, this line required the communists to restrain mass uprisings that threatened the GMD’s social and political base, and it eventually led to the slaughter by the GMD and its allies of hundreds of thousands of communists and radicalized workers, peasants, and students, as well as the near destruction of the CCP. Similarly, in the mid-1940s Stalin did not believe that the CCP could defeat the U.S.-backed GMD, and tried to pressure the Chinese communists to enter into a coalition government with the GMD, including giving up control over its army and base areas.
Despite the CCP’s first-hand disastrous experience with a line in which advancing the world revolution was subordinated to defense of the Soviet Union, in the mid-1970s the Chinese party adopted a line in which the defense of China displaced revolutionary internationalism. The key turning point was the rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping in 1973 and the ascendancy of his version of the Three Worlds Theory, which was founded on a strategic alliance with the U.S. and other Western imperialist powers.
At the end of the 1960s, China’s foreign policy drew strength from the revolutionary upsurge of the Cultural Revolution and China’s support for national liberation movements throughout the 1960s. The 9th National Congress of the CCP, held in April 1969, proclaimed support for the revolutionary struggles of the people of all countries, the five principles for peaceful coexistence with countries with different social systems, and called for the formation of a broad united front of peoples and countries against U.S. imperialism and Soviet revisionism.
However, the CCP’s approach to the U.S. and Soviet Union was already beginning to shift. In early 1969, the Soviet Union had massed a million troops along China’s northern border, and launched several attacks to reclaim parts of the former Tsarist empire. In March 1969, on Zhenbao Island in the Ussuri River, two battles were fought between Soviet and Chinese forces, leaving hundreds of casualties. According to U.S. satellite photos, “the Chinese side of the river was so pockmarked by Soviet artillery that it looked like a moonscape.”
According to Henry Kissinger, in August 1969 a State Department specialist in Soviet affairs was asked by a Soviet Embassy official what the U.S. reaction would be to a Soviet attack on China’s nuclear facilities. Soviet diplomats were also raising the issue of a nuclear strike on China with European and Asian diplomats. Even more ominously, the Soviets had flown in bomber units to bases in Mongolia and Siberia, where they carried out mock attacks on simulated nuclear facilities.
The PLA was placed on a war footing. The plans to relocate key military industries to a “third line” of defense in the interior of the country were accelerated, and networks of underground tunnels and shelters were built in major cities. In a top-secret study commissioned by Mao, four marshals of the PLA stated that even though the Soviets’ main forces were still concentrated in Europe, they were preparing for an attack on China. This study concluded that the key element holding the Soviets back was the attitude of the U.S., which did not want to see the Soviet Union’s global position strengthened by a successful attack on China.
This assessment buttressed the decision of the majority of the Chinese leadership to initiate an “opening to the West.” This strategy enabled China to avoid fighting on two fronts by exploiting the imperialist rivalry between the U.S. and Soviet Union. This policy had the best chance of heading off a Soviet attack. Another part of the CCP’s calculations was that the U.S. was headed to defeat in Vietnam and no longer posed as serious a military threat to China.
This shift in strategic thinking led to a major test of strength in 1970-1971 between Mao, Zhou and the so-called “gang of four” (the Four) on the one hand, and Lin Biao and a number of high-ranking generals, on the other. Lin opposed the opening to the West and was building up a factional network in the army to strengthen his hand. Mao responded by launching a campaign to undercut Lin’s number two position in the party and to win over the regional military commanders. Facing political defeat, Lin attempted to stage a coup in September 1971 and died in a plane crash in Mongolia.
The “Lin Biao affair” had a devastating impact on the course of the Cultural Revolution and Chinese foreign policy. Lin and his allies in the army and party had been a key component of the “Left Alliance” during the mass upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, and their downfall created a power vacuum in both foreign policy and internal affairs.
Under the sponsorship of Zhou Enlai, large numbers of high-ranking party leaders and government officials who had been overthrown during the Cultural Revolution were rehabilitated after making pro-forma “self-criticisms.” This process culminated in the 1973 return of Deng Xiaoping, the “No. 2 capitalist roader,” to serve as Deputy Premier whose area of responsibility included foreign policy
The years 1969 to 1973 were a transitional period. Mao and Zhou, the two chief architects of Chinese foreign policy, were in basic agreement on the opening to the West. One element of this shift was that the People’s Republic pursued a strategy of normalization of relations with over 100 countries that resulted in its admission to the UN as the sole representative of China in October 1971. At the same time, Mao continued to stress that revolution was the main trend in the world and that support for revolutionary struggles in other countries should not be cut back.
In order to keep the Soviet Union off balance, the U.S. ping-pong team visit and Henry Kissinger’s trips in 1971 were followed by President Nixon’s historic meeting with Mao in February 1972. This meeting did not result in any reduction in Chinese support for the Vietnamese liberation struggle. In Mao’s view, fundamental revolutionary principles should not be compromised in the course of playing the “American card.” In 1971-72, Mao and Zhou also told Kissinger and Nixon that full normalization of relations could not take place unless the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam and ended its military support for the Chinese province of Taiwan.
During this period, the basic orientation of the party leadership was summarized in an internal report on the international situation in December 1971: “The general strategy of our nation for the present is to push forward preparations against war and promote revolution.”
In a world divided into “three parts”—the U.S., Soviet Union and the Third World—China was “resolutely on the side of the Third World” in opposing the two main enemies. The report called for exploiting contradictions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and between the U.S. and the “second intermediate zone”—Western Europe, Japan, Canada and Oceania.
The report also called for continued military support for Vietnam and other revolutionary struggles in Southeast Asia, and for backing national liberation movements in Africa and Latin America, chiefly with political and moral support. In regards to the U.S., it stated, “As the people’s revolution in the U.S. gradually gains momentum, we have to do more work,” and noted that normalization of relations with the U.S. would make it easier to carry out this work.
The case of the Philippines is instructive. Even as China was normalizing political and trade relations with the Philippines, the CCP stepped up its support for the Communist Party of the Philippines, which was refounded in 1968. CPP members visited and received training in
China, and in 1971, the Chinese provided 1,400 M-14 rifles and 8,000 rounds of ammunition in a ship sent from the Philippines by the CPP-led New People’s Army.