Home > Analysis, culture, General, News, politics > Reflecting on 45 Years of Modern Sino-French Relationship

Reflecting on 45 Years of Modern Sino-French Relationship

Later this month will mark the 45th anniversay of French’s diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China.

I had not known that 45 years ago, France was the first major Western nation, despite stiff American opposition of that time, to recognize the People’s Republic of China.

I also had not known that – contrary to the faux paux spats that occurred between the two nations the last year – the modern relationship between France and China had actually started on a high note of mutual respect and admiration.

Here are some excerpts from an interesting article from David Gosset on Asia Times:

A return to De Gaulle’s ‘eternal China’
By David Gosset

One repeatedly attributes to French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte a statement that he probably never uttered and which has become an inept cliche: “When China awakes, the world will shake.” However, in a press conference on September 9, 1965, president Charles de Gaulle did pronounce a more nuanced and accurate view: “A fact of considerable significance is at work and is reshaping the world: China’s very deep transformation puts her in a position to have a global leading role.”

Indeed, the Chinese renaissance modifies the world’s distribution of power in a gradual and peaceful process which does not entail abrupt discontinuity or violent disruption.

On January 27, we will celebrate the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). From a French perspective, the full recognition of the Beijing’s government was, above all, the decision of De Gaulle, one of France’s greatest statesmen and a colossus of the 20th century world politics.

Days after the 1964 announcement, Time magazine commented the new situation in a very stimulating article on French diplomacy from Richelieu to De Gaulle which reflected very well the global echo and significance of the event:

As a nation, France has seemed to be dying all through the 20th century … Yet last week the impossible had apparently come true, and France was once more a mover and shaker in world affairs … To cap his nation’s re-emergence as a world power, De Gaulle recognized the communist regime in Beijing as the government of China, brushing aside protests from Washington that the move would seriously damage US policy in Asia.

In the geopolitical context of the 1960s, De Gaulle’s judgment upon China was truly visionary and a perfect illustration of his ability to discern the fundamental historical trends from perhaps more spectacular but less consequential events.

His exceptional acumen and strategic mind were not only at the origin of a special relationship between Paris and Beijing, but the spirit of his groundbreaking decision remains a reference to guide the future of the Sino-French cooperation. It should certainly be seen as a source of inspiration to go beyond the unnecessary and sterile Sino-French tension which have regrettably marked 2008.

In the 1960s, isolated on the international stage, China was also facing an internal crisis of considerable magnitude. In 1958 the central government wanted to accelerate the country’s industrialization in a “Great Leap Forward”. It was an enormous economic failure, a fall backward, which generated a tragic human disaster. With Peng Dehuai’s courageous disapproval of the movement at the Lushan conference, but also Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi’s legitimate criticisms of Mao’s radical policy, the ruling communist party was seriously divided.

The French statesman began his conference with demographic and geographic facts. “The great Chinese people”, the largest on earth, inhabit a very vast country, “compact but without unity”, which, “spans from Asia Minor and Europe’s marchlands to the immense Pacific coast and from the freezing Siberia to the tropical regions of India and Tonkin”. De Gaulle comprehended the implications of China’s size and considering “the weight of evidence and reason” decided that one has to work with the Chinese leadership. Long-lasting solutions to any serious problem in Asia or even in the world depends on the active and constructive participation of China.

Then, De Gaulle introduced the keystone of his thinking about the Chinese world: China is not a nation or a nation-state, but fundamentally is a civilization, a “very unique and very deep civilization”.

Of course, France’s early recognition of the PRC was a political gesture with geopolitical motives. By recognizing Mao’s government, Paris signaled to both Washington and Moscow that France intended to deploy an independent foreign policy. Paris was also well aware that China’s goal was to become an independent international actor. It was on October 16, 1964 that Beijing detonated its first nuclear weapon at the Lop Nur test site. One year earlier, neither France nor China signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which aimed to limit the arms race. De Gaulle believed that a multipolar configuration would be more conducive to sustainable equilibrium than either unipolarity or the dangerous bipolar structure. For some, De Gaulle’s politics of grandeur were unacceptable.

However, by entirely reducing De Gaulle’s decision to politics one is missing a fundamental component of Gaullism.

When he referred to China as a civilization, De Gaulle transcended the usual geopolitical calculations and he took into account a more essential reality. De Gaulle wanted to see the French administration working with another foreign government but, more fundamentally, he wanted France to be in a position to cooperate with a more permanent human construction, the Chinese civilization. De Gaulle was so focused on the idea of permanency that he spoke of an “eternal China” which is “conscious and proud of an immutable perennity”. Even though it makes great sense to think about China as a civilization and certainly not as another Asian nation-state, the mention of China’s immutability is either a rhetorical excess or a mythical representation.

In his dramatic press conference, De Gaulle consistently referred to history. On the Chinese state, he hyperbolically declared that it is “more ancient than History”. But an analysis which comprehends the ancient past does not have to exclude a perceptive approach of the more recent events. It is with a genuine empathy that De Gaulle reminded his audience of China’s painful adjustment to modernity over the past one hundred years. And the Chinese people’s sentiment of humiliation when they had to suffer the violent Western ambition and domination. This shock between the Western modernity and the Chinese tradition explains why the PRC will do whatever it takes to reach the material development necessary to avoid the repetition of foreign interference or intrusion. Its legitimacy depends on its capacity to consolidate China’s sovereignty and to preserve the country’s unity.

De Gaulle concluded his presentation with another remark about what he called the “affinities” between France and China. Indeed, French and Chinese intellectuals, being animated by the same curiosity to understand each other, have been linked for centuries by a mutual attraction. But affinity envelops also the idea of similarity. Despite all the differences between France and China, it is meaningful to observe that they share a very singular high esteem for culture.

Though the world has changed considerably in the past 45 years, De Gaulle is still a source of inspiration. His vision and resolute action put the Sino-French relationship on a special trajectory. Today, this relationship has to contribute to a strong Sino-European synergy, a prerequisite to a more balanced global governance. 2008 ended regrettably by an unnecessary quarrel between Beijing and Paris but the tension, so contrary to the usual mutual respect and friendship between the two capitals, will not last.

However, when the current French president does not act in the spirit of his illustrious predecessor, one should not be surprised by China’s reaction, which is hitherto more about psychology than politics or geopolitics. China’s disappointment with Paris is proportionate to her well-grounded expectations about the Sino-French relationship, and Chinese society can not be indifferent to what is perceived as sudden tactless and provocative maneuvers. It would be a strategic mistake for Paris to deliberately persist to affect a capital of trust accumulated over decades, and it is now time to return to policies and actions conformed to a truly special relationship.

French, European but also Chinese leaders have to reflect again upon De Gaulle’s decision to recognize the People’s Republic of China. It is an invitation to consider China as a living civilization and a co-architect of the 21st century global equilibrium. In its highest expression, Gaullism is the effort to act according to permanent realities. In that sense, its relevance remains in the midst of changes and despite all the noise of superficial posturing.

Maybe the above is just history.

But I thought I’d write a quick post on this because often times history can give us insights which give us broader perspectives into the present and future.

I’ll admit: I am one of those who criticized and belittled Sarkozy and even Sino-French relations both in the lead up to the Olympics and more recently in the wake of Sarkozy’s decision to meet the Dalai Lama.

Well … maybe the 45th anniversary of diplomatic recognition between France and China is a good opportunity for some of us to step back and pause a little, gain some composure, and perhaps regain some perspectives for the longer term …

  1. Wukailong
    January 8th, 2009 at 00:05 | #1

    “I had not known that 45 years ago, France was the first major Western nation, despite stiff American opposition of that time, to recognize the People’s Republic of China.”

    Sweden and Finland were earlier:

    “Sweden recognized the People’s Republic of China on 14th January 1950 and was the first western country to establish diplomatic relations with China, which took place on 9th May 1950. The two countries exchanged ambassadors in the same year. General Geng Biao was the first Chinese ambassador to Sweden.”


  2. January 8th, 2009 at 00:16 | #2

    @Wukailong – Good point – I should have referred to that point (the article I cited did). The thing is that – with all due respect to Sweden and Finland – I didn’t consider those nations to be “major” Western nations in the league of say France, Germany, G. Britain, and the U.S….

  3. Wukailong
    January 8th, 2009 at 02:13 | #3

    Sorry, missed the thing about “major”. 😉 It would be interesting to know why Sweden and Finland chose to align themselves with PRC rather than ROC, though.

  4. pug_ster
    January 8th, 2009 at 02:24 | #4

    There’s always ulterior motives by the French to have relations with China. During the early Vietnam war with the French, they are probably looking for support from China to at least not to get them involved in their war. The relations between China and Vietnam didn’t normalize until after 1989. Sweden and Finland are probably 2 ‘peace loving’ countries which does not want to get involved in other countries affairs.

  5. January 8th, 2009 at 03:02 | #5

    Also, Sweden, for one, had a strong socialist tradition (“social democratic,” but socialist nonetheless) and might have felt some sympathy or at least openness to the Chinese revolution. Interesting little quote I came across:

    “[Swedish] Prime Minister Olof Palme… strained U.S.–Swedish relations when in December 1972 he likened the massive Christmas bombing of North Vietnam to past Nazi atrocities. Most damaging to U.S.–Swedish relations, in 1969 Sweden became the first Western nation to extend full diplomatic recognition to North Vietnam. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon both threatened, but did not follow through on, economic sanctions.”


    It’s exciting to think of a relatively small country (geopolitics-wise, at least) carving such an independent, conscientious path.

  6. Wukailong
    January 8th, 2009 at 05:52 | #6

    @OTR: Interesting, I didn’t know that the neutrals created a rift in the system the participants of the cold war were used to.

  7. January 8th, 2009 at 06:16 | #7

    Yeah, Sweden and Finland hardly count as “major”. Finland is big in motorsport and cellphones, Sweden in aircraft, cars, furniture, and both brew some pretty decent vodka, but none of that really makes them “major” Western countries. Although, Sweden was a pretty big player in northern Europe/the Baltic for quite some time- well, I s’ppose it’s not hard to be a big fish in such a small pond. Also, I would assume their long-standing neutrality played a part in their early recognition of the PRC. Not being aligned with either superpower left them free to choose the obvious victor in China’s civil war without any ideological baggage getting in the way (for the same reason it would be interesting to know when Ireland and Switzerland recognised the PRC).

    Re. Finland, it was a Swedish colony until Peter the Great (I believe) took it for Russia and didn’t gain independence until 1917. It then fought two very brutal wars with the Soviet Union, losing 1/3 of its territory (Karelia) and facing the usual trouble in getting rid of its erstwhile Nazi allies, around World War 2. From what little I remember on the subject, it seems that history and the fact its longest land border was with the Soviet Union played a pretty big role in Finland’s actions on the geopolitical stage for a long time. Not at all surprising it recognised the PRC so early- a day earlier than Sweden, it seems:

    Although Denmark recognised the PRC on 9 January 1950, but took until May 11, 1950 to establish diplomatic relations:

    Geng Biao seems to be a popular character in all these stories.

    Uh oh, too many links will get this comment marked as spam….

  8. Steve
    January 8th, 2009 at 06:34 | #8

    Allen, it seems you have gravely hurt the feelings of the Swedish and Finnish people! 😛

  9. S.K. Cheung
    January 8th, 2009 at 07:54 | #9

    As a Canadian, i feel obliged to point out that Sweden and Finland also make pretty good hockey players…though not as good as Canada, of course 🙂

    “To cap his nation’s re-emergence as a world power…” – I wonder if De Gaulle wasn’t just trying to serve France’s interest, first and foremost.

    All this talk about Sarkozy and France. But he’s also the current EU president. So maybe the entire EU are out to get CHina.

  10. Leo
    January 8th, 2009 at 15:21 | #10

    UK also recognized PRC Govt. as the sole representative of China in 1950, despite the protest of the US. So were with Norway and Switzerland. Holland did so in 1954, Italy in 1964. France just did it 6 years ahead of the US.

    I think some countries were just practical in this matter and not so entrenched in ideology as the US and its close allies. In 1950s and 60s, both China and Taiwan sticked to One-China principle. PRC Govt’s legitimacy has already been a matter of fact. So there was no so much controversy.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.