This is the second part of my blog entries on Deng Xiaoping based on the book by Ezra Vogel. Next time, I will explore Deng and June 4th student movement, but this entry will look over his foreign policy works. Ezra Vogel did a great job exploring the major foreign policy decisions faced with Deng at the time of his reign. They included the normalization of relations with USA, Japan, USSR, war with Vietnam and negotiations with Taiwan and Tibetan exile government.
When looking at the normalization of relationship with USA and Japan in the late 70s, it’s really interesting to see how weak China’s negotiation positions were. At that point, China needed the west for investments, technology, education and support against USSR. In fact, Mao decided to approach US only after he realized China badly needed America to help fend off the Soviet threat. It’s probably hard for someone from Deng’s generation to imagine the West needing China for money to bail out.
When Deng came back to power in the late 70s, China was facing not only overwhelming Soviet threat to the north and West (the backfires could bomb Beijing and fly back to their bases without escort), but also a superior trained and equipped Vietnamese side to the south. Even North Korean support was not guaranteed. China was faced with a full encirclement and was weak economically and militarily. First, Deng made sure to firm up China’s relationship with the North Koreans to reduce threat from East. Then, Deng decided China had to break the encirclement by attacking Vietnam. Of course, China was facing the threat of Soviet retaliation, so it worked hard to speed up the normalization of relations with both USA and Japan. America and its allies feared USSR hegemony over continental Asia, so both USA and Japan were willing to extend hand to China for cooperation against USSR. Deng recognized a window of opportunity to show a new and stable China to the rest of the world and normalize relations with Western powers. In 1972, China had already officially normalized relations with Japan, but a more comprehensive treaty needed to be signed and China wanted an anti-hegemony clause for support against USSR, Before Deng visited Japan in October 1978, Japan had been reluctant to accept such a clause that was so blatantly pointed at USSR. China was limited by time constraint of its impending invasion into Vietnam, so eventually gave in by allowing a mitigation clause saying the anti-hegemony was not aimed at anyone. When Deng visited Japan, he put a lot of Japanese at ease about Chinese intentions and focused on future cooperations rather than the past. By not bombarding Japan with past guilt, Deng won a lot of support from Japanese business in investment and modernization. When I read this, I think that the current generation of Chinese leaders also have better options in negotiations with Japan than only trying to push forward with hard power. They can have less aggressive foreign policy toward Japan without appearing to be weak at home.
By the late 70s, high level discussions were under way for normalization of relations between China and USA. Deng realized that he not only needed US to counter Soviet threat, but also to modernize and invest. Deng’s biggest pitch to USA was the threat of Soviet ambitions and hegemony in Asia. He labeled the Americans as too soft on USSR. There was the one major problem of Taiwan. Deng would not normalize relations with US unless US broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan, ended US/Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty and withdrew its military from Taiwan. Deng expected Taiwan to be forced to reunify with China once this happens. Deng would allow Taiwan to still have its own autonomy and even keep its army, but take down its flag. US basically agreed with all the conditions, but insisted that it reserves the right to sell Taiwan selected weapons of defensive nature. Deng eventually gave in to that demand allowed normalization to continue. i think Deng realized that China did not have enough leverage on Washington to stop all weapon sales. They had a narrow window of opportunity to negotiate the normalization of relation due to the political climate in Washington and the Taiwan lobby. Deng and the US negotiators at that time believed that weapon sales would eventually stop completely as American public accept mainland as the only China, which would pressure Taiwan into reunifiction talks. I think Deng held out hope that Taiwan would cave and reunify with China during his life time, but that obviously did not happen. Two important events happened to stop this. Taiwan ended martial law and human right abuses and adopted democracy. The June 4th student movement was crushed in Beijing and stopped China’s move toward greater political reform. After that, Mainland became the evil dictatorship and Taiwan became the democratic underdog seeking liberty. It would be hard to imagine American public supporting ending weapon sales at this point. At the same time, the Chinese leadership have not given up the hope that America would stop weapon sales to Taiwan over time due to these early discussions. So if you wonder why China makes a big deal out of each weapon sales to Taiwan, it is because China expected USA to stop selling weapons to Taiwan several years after the normalization. We’ve seen many change of leadership in America since 1979, but the Chinese leadership still adopts the same position taken by Deng over 30 years ago. Of course, the normalization has helped China far more than USA, so Deng was correct to conceed on the weapon sales even if he was accused by some as too soft in negotiations. More importantly, Deng impressed his American counterparts with his directness and provided a look of reason to the American public during his visit. He did not appear as a hated communist but rather someone looking to improve the lives of his people. That’s someone the Western world can sympathize in. He managed to have a successful trip even though he told Carter that China is about to attack Vietnam. The current generation of Chinese leaders are a bunch of lifeless technocrats who always stick by the script. I don’t think any of them could have pulled that off without widespread condemnation.
Once Deng came back from America, China launched its war against Vietnam. The elite PLA troops were left along the Soviet border for possible retaliations, so only secondary tier of troops were attacking Vietnam. The conflict concluded in less than 30 days without Soviet intervention and PLA claimed to have achieved its primary goals before withdrawing with a “Scorch Earth” policy. However, PLA suffered serious casualty, because it was still recovering from the Cultural Revolution and was simply not ready to fight. Looking broadly, Deng did achieve his goal of reducing Vietnamese power in ASEAN region and enhancing China’s standing amongst countries fearing Vietnam/USSR hegemony. The Scorch Earth policy seriously damaged infrastructure/countryside in North Vietnam and severely reduce the offensive capability of Vietnam along the border. By demonstrating to Vietnam that it is willing to attack, Vietnam was forced to keep more than half a million soldier to protect itself from China. Vietnam eventually could not afford to keep that many soldiers along Chinese border while also occupying Cambodia, so it had to give up its dream of regional hegemony. This conflict basically removed the Soviet encirclement allowing China to have peace and fully pursue economic development. Even so, I tend to think the last part could have been achieved without attacking Vietnam. Not only did China suffer 20,000 to 60,000 causalities, it also diverted precious resources that should have gone toward improving the economy. Unlike the current American model of financing war on debt, China had to run a relatively balanced budget at that time. On top of that, the invasion and earth scorching policies have left deep distrust and resentment toward China from Vietnam. And after Soviet Union got bogged down in Afghanistan in the 80s, China no longer faced the same level of encirclement dangers from the Soviets. We will never know if the Soviet encirclement threat was so great that China had to loose so many young lives and money to ensure peace and stability.
Deng’s approach toward USSR as a whole was quite effective. By the 70s, the security threat facing China from USSR was so strong that even Mao decided to turn to the much hated Americans for support. PLA combat capabilities significantly weakened during the Cultural Revolution as it focused on class struggle and political thoughts rather than training and improvement. And America was receptive toward Chinese overtures because it was concerned that USSR would take over China and dominate all of Asia. Deng faced the same threat when he took over, which is why he made such a strong presentation to Japan and America about the threat of Soviet hegemony in Europe and Asia. He repeatedly pointed out American weakness and labeled SALT II as American appeasement toward Soviets. Deng himself took a very hard stance toward Russians. He attacked Vietnam to show that Russia was not prepared to be drawn into a land war in East Asia. This was an extremely gusty and risky move, because PLA really would have a hard time stopping Soviet advances had a retaliation come. Deng felt that Soviet concerns in Europe and China’s new found friendship with USA and Japan would prevent Soviet retaliation to the north. He turned out to be right. After he felt the encirclement threat was gone, he reached out to USSR again for normalization of relations. He felt that USSR would eventually exhaust from arms race with America and its war in Afghanistan, so he gave them three conditions for normalizing relations. He demanded that the Soviets had to pull out of Afghanistan, remove troops from China’s northern border area and the Vietnamese had to leave Cambodia. He stuck by those conditions all through the 80s until the Soviet leadership gave in to normalize relations. Gorbachev came in 1989 on Deng’s terms and even offered to sell China its most advanced Su-27 fighter jets.
Deng, like Mao and Zhou before him, had hoped that Taiwan would reunite with China during their lifetime. In 1683, 22 years after remnants of Ming troops fled to Taiwan, their leaders agreed that Taiwan would again become part of China. Deng hoped that Chiang Ching-Kuo would also rejoin Taiwan to China. He proposed that Taiwan could keep its own social system for 1000 years and even keep its own army, but have to take down its flag. Chiang was defiant and maintained that the Republic of China represented all of China. Deng wanted to isolate Taiwan in the international stage to pressure them into voluntarily rejoining China, but the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act provided all the support that Taiwan needed. It was a huge blow for Deng, who felt that that the conditions of normalization would lead to reduction of arms sales to Taiwan. Deng believed at that time that US would eventually stop selling all weapons to Taiwan, which would pressure Taiwan to rejoin China at some point down the road. 15 years after Deng’s death, US and China still have the same position toward Taiwan. On one hand, Taiwan has drawn closer to China with business integration, increased trades, direct flights and increased tourism. On the other hand, the majority of Taiwanese now consider themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. Deng had said that China is willing to wait a century and even a millennium to reunify with Taiwan. You can see that the current Chinese leadership is still trying to slowly increase its leverage over Taiwan until Taiwan takes down its flag. The negotiations over Hong Kong was also quite interesting. Britain was coming off the highs of Falkland Islands victory and Thatcher came into the negotiations thinking that Deng’s positions were negotiation tactics. Thatcher came out of the meeting with Deng so shaken by Deng’s tough stance that she slipped and fell to her knees. Over the next year, Deng made it clear that China is not Argentina and would send in the troops to take control of Hong Kong if needed. China’s forceful position eventually persuaded the British to sign the declaration for handing over Hong Kong in 1997.
Deng’s positions toward Tibet was not as inflexible as some may think. Back in the 1950s, Mao had achieved relatively good relations with the Tibetans by allowing Dalai Lama to have relative autonomy over the Tibetan Autonomous Regions (TAR). Tibetans accepted Chinese sovereignty, but was granted the right to administer TAR, keep their own currency and even maintain their own army. China would be in charge of foreign affairs, military affairs and border controls. The problem happened due to the communist reforms in areas outside of TAR, where half of the Tibetans lived. The Tibetans in Sichuan rioted and then fled to Tibet after they were beaten. Of course, we had more conflicts on TAR in 1959, which led to Dalai Lama moving the Tibetan exile government to India. When Deng came to power, he had to reconcile with Tibetans who had suffered the wrath of Cultural Revolution when the red guard destroyed a lot of Tibetan culture. Deng really tried to make amend when he first came to power, but he also was unaware of the true alienation of Tibetans against the Han population. When Tibetan exile delegation visited TAR, they became more critical of Chinese treatment of Tibetans. Hu Yaobang and Deng tried to take a much softer approach in TAR to satisfy the Tibetans. However, their position was still not good enough for Dalai Lama and also increased Tibetan belief that they can become independent. The two sides did try to reconcile their positions, but at least one Tibetan condition is too much even for the most reasonable and leniant Chinese negotiator. Tibetan exiles wanted the boundaries of Tibet to be extended to include the Tibetan minority areas in other provinces including Sichuan, Ginghai, Gansu and Yunnan. Now, Tibetans are the minorities in these area (and have been so for quite some time), so I think this is probably the most unreasonable condition. Now, the softer approach toward Tibetan led to to Tibetan revolts for full independence in the late 1980s, which were crushed. Since then, China has practiced a much more heavy handed approach in Tibet while trying to promote economic growth to stabilize the region. Through the negotiations in the 80s, I think Chinese leadership concluded that although Dalai Lama himself may accept autonomy and return to rule in Tibet, the rest of the Tibetan exile movement are more extreme and would not allow Dalai Lama to take a middle approach. I think the Chinese leadership would’ve been okay with granting Dalai Lama the same level of autonomy that he had in the 1950s (if not more) for TAR, but there have been too much bad blood built up in the recent years for Tibetans to accept that. The positions from both side have not really changed since the 80s. Unless Chinese leadership is willing to apologize to the Tibetans and push local officials to be more lenient in TAR, I don’t really see things moving for the better. On the overall scheme of things, Deng never regarded Tibet as important as Taiwan, Hong Kong and foreign relations.
I think the most impressive part is that Deng knew what he could extract from each country that he dealt with. He knew which countries he needed to visit to build up support for his agenda. He also had a clear understanding of the geopolitical situation around the world and waited for the right time to strike. He also appealed to other world leaders with his directness and honesty. During normalization of relations with USSR, he told American counterparts that negotiations were going on and assured them that relations with America would remain strong. Deng formulated the theory that China should “adopt a low profile and never take the lead”. Simply put, Deng knew how to reduce tension and build relationships without caving into foreign demands. After Deng, I think the Jiang Zemin + Zhu Rongji administration also did a good job, but the current Hu Jintao administrations just seem to bundle one situation after another. The other interesting thing he did was allowing large numbers of Chinese students to travel abroad to study (compared to Soviet fears of brain drain). He thought that those who go abroad would help China even if they did not return to China right away. That’s one assessment that he had great foresight in. An ever increasing number of former students that settled abroad have now brought back their knowledge and expertise to improving China. I see this in my parents’ generation. Many of them are living comfortable lives in the Western world, but still talk of doing something to help their home land. Overall, I think Deng should not have attack Vietnam. Other than that, I think his policies were spot on.