Why doesn't China have allies?

This newsletter is penned by Lu Jiafei, a contributor to BeijingChannel

As U.S. President Joe Biden wrapped up his Europe tour, during which he tried to unify allies under the banner of Democracy, maybe it’s worthwhile to examine China’s view and action in regard to forging alliances.

It’s plenty clear that the current global situation is one where the world’s largest economy is rebuilding a global alliance to counter the second largest one, just like what the former did during the Cold War. But unlike the Soviet Union, China is not forging its own alliance.

There are some who like to frame China’s lack of allies as evidence that Beijing is inferior in its global standing compare with Washington, which maintains numerous alliances around the world.

But is that really the case? In this newsletter, your host would like to briefly address the questions, specifically, to answer 1) Is forging alliances the mainstream practice of international relations? 2) Why does China have no ally and how does China view international relations?

As to the first question, your host would like to first discuss what constitutes “alliance.” According to Dictionary.com, an alliance vaguely refers to a formal agreement or treaty between two or more nations to cooperate for specific purposes. However, in today’s political terminology, especially during the Cold War, “alliance” more likely means a military one.

According to Wikipedia, a military alliance is an international agreement concerning national security in which the contracting parties agree to mutual protection and support in case of a crisis that has not been identified in advance.

An early 1950s memorandum from the U.S. State Department noted that historically, alliances “were designed to advance the respective nationalistic interests of the parties, and provided for joint military action if one of the parties in pursuit of such objectives became involved in war.” In addition, a collective security arrangement “is directed against no one; it is directed solely against aggression. It seeks not to influence any shifting ‘balance of power’ but to strengthen the 'balance of principle.’”

Now that we’ve established the definition, let’s take a look at if forging alliances the mainstream practice of international relations.

The answer is not really. Building up a western-style alliance, such as the one between the United States and many EU countries to counter the Soviet Union then and China now is not an option chosen by the majority of developing countries in the world.

As you may know, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is a grouping of 120 developing countries that are not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc. After the United Nations, it is the largest grouping of countries worldwide. The countries of the NAM represent nearly two-thirds of the United Nations' members and contain 55 percent of the world population. Membership is particularly concentrated in countries considered to be developing or part of the Third World, though the Movement also has a number of developed countries.

You may wonder whether the NAM is a kind of “alliance” in essence. However, the NAM has no headquarters, no permanent bodies, and no written statutes. All meetings of the Movement are based on the principle of consensus. In case of disagreement, each member state may formally submit a reservation in writing to the Presidency as an indication that it is not bound by the relevant resolution or document.

As to the second question, why does China have no ally?

The short answer is simply because China actively chose not to have any.

Since its founding, the People’s Republic of China has been firmly pursuing an independent foreign policy that included non-alignment as a feature. In 1953, then-Premier Zhou Enlai first proposed the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, making a historic contribution to promoting the establishment of a new type of international relations that is fair and reasonable. in September 1982, then national leader Deng Xiaoping pointed out in his opening speech to the 12th Party Congress that “Independence and self-reliance, whether in the past, present or future, are our foothold” (独立自主,自力更生,无论过去、现在和将来,都是我们的立足点) and “no foreign country should expect China to be their vassal or to swallow the bitter fruit of harming our interests.” (任何外国不要指望中国做他们的附庸,不要指望中国会吞下损害我国利益的苦果)

These statements declared China’s determination to be non-aligned.

According to Li Daguang, a professor from China People's Liberation Army National Defence University, China's policy of avoiding alliances is both the result of past lessons from the Soviet Union and in accordance with China’s self-interest.

Li wrote in an article that thanks to the non-alignment policy, China can reduce friction with other countries and create a good international environment for its economic and social development; the second reason is that it is conducive to maintaining world peace and reducing the threat of war; the third is that it is also conducive to maintaining China’s independent and autonomous status, free from the restraints of other countries, and can make international friends.

Not forging alliances with other states does not mean China is not forging partnerships globally. In 1993, China established its first strategic partnership with Brazil. Since then, China’s global partnership network has been steadily expanding.

At the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs in November 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged China to make more friends under the principle of non-alignment, so as to build a global network of partnerships. He has since then talked about global partnerships more than once in his speeches.

Also as stated in the report to the 19th CPC National Congress, China has actively developed global partnerships and expanded the convergence of interests with other countries.

China will promote coordination and cooperation with other major countries and work to build a framework for major-country relations featuring overall stability and balanced development. China will deepen relations with its neighbors in accordance with the principle of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness and the policy of forging friendship and partnership with its neighbors. China will be guided by the principle of upholding justice while pursuing shared interests and the principle of sincerity, real results, affinity, and good faith, work to strengthen solidarity and cooperation with other developing countries.