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Foreign Policy

What Zhou Enlai Teaches Us About Pragmatic Diplomacy

Jan 31, 2023
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

February this year marks the 51st anniversary of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. 

Earlier this month marked the 47th anniversary of the death of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai – the key architect, orchestrator, and intellectual maestro on the Chinese side behind the visit.  

Between these two innocuous dates lie the legacy of a man who was as much a statesman as a diplomat, a pragmatic as an idealist, and a moderate liberal as an unflinching devotee to the then-orthodoxy of the Communist Party of China. 

As we enter into an era of unprecedented geopolitical upheaval and great power tensions, it is well worth remembering the legacy of Zhou Enlai – and acknowledging the significant upshots and takeaways that we can draw from his own experience. 

Zhou Enlai, in many ways, defied convention and expectations for politicians of his era. As a revolutionary tasked with intelligence, he was pensive, adept, and deeply capable of maintaining delicate relations with a large number of contacts, assets, and colleagues. As the Premier to a fledgling nation with a gigantic population, he took to enshrining a degree of accountability and efficacy amidst contentions and turmoil that precipitated the downfall of many of his peers. Yet it was as a diplomat – and spokesperson for the rising, modern China – that his acumen shone the most. 

The primary tenet that defined his legacy was Zhou’s approach to the Sino-Russian-American triangular relationship. He was well aware that an over-dependence upon the USSR was not only ideologically untenable (as Mao noted throughout the Sino-Soviet split during the early days of the Cold War), but also inhibited the options that China had in prosecuting genuine autonomy and sovereignty. He was reticent to endorse the Quixotic ambitions of the ossified Soviet leadership – though held no pretension or illusion that China could do away with the support, if at times begrudging and mercurial, of the USSR. 

Yet a core pillar to maintaining China’s independence and bargaining power with Russia rested with the country’s ability to build a robust relationship with the leading economic, military, and political power in the world – the United States. This was why through repeated backdoor negotiations and track-II dialogue, Zhou eventually came to build a tentatively functional working relationship with his American interlocutor, Henry Kissinger, and paved the way for the monumental thawing of Beijing-Washington relations in 1972. 

The story remains pertinent today. In 2023, China must navigate with precision and nimbleness its relationships with both Russia and the West. On one hand, Russia appears to play a key role in China’s vision for a multipolar world order – one where no singular party could dominate with muscular hegemony; on the other hand, it must be wary of getting dragged into the quagmire of the war in Ukraine, and being framed in ways that deprive it of both pragmatic agency and the ability to engage with potential allies in Europe. 

Zhou Enlai championed doctrines of non-alignment to rid China of the pressure to capitulate to any foreign force – Russian, American, European, or otherwise; he also did so with the intention of emboldening the rest of the proverbial ‘Third World’, countries whose skin in the great power game rest precisely with not taking sides. At the 1955 Bandung Conference, he had the foresight of advancing a cosmopolitan worldview that combined overt opposition to colonialism and imperialism, with an overarching commitment to peace as a default modus operandi. These are principles that Beijing and Washington today would be best served in recalling – if we are to tackle joint, existential challenges, we must stand firmly against the instigation and initiation of hot war between significant military forces, which would produce a heightened risk of undue escalation. 

To bring his words to life, Zhou took swift action in de-escalating tensions across the Taiwan Strait. He noted the futility of further military provocation by Beijing in the 1950s – arguing that this would only lead to an unnecessary confrontation with the United States in the region. As the Sino-American détente unfolded in the 1970s, Zhou negotiated for America to open up its economy and market access to China, in exchange for practical and reasonable commitments on China’s part to ‘agree’ to disagree on the status of Taiwan through the Shanghai Communique. 

Yet there is more to Zhou’s diplomacy than threading the fine line between Moscow and Washington. He was, for one, a deeply charismatic and personable figure that leaned heavily into humanistic and sentimental diplomacy as a means of courting hearts and minds. Zhou charmed leaders and statespersons as much as he did leaders within civil societies of interlocuting countries – ranging from Japanese sports association heads and cultural figures, to the diplomatic circles of continental Europe. Where positive trade pledges and concrete policy promises did not work, Zhou’s affability and charisma would come to the rescue. 

Undergirding Zhou’s approach to diplomacy was an ultimately successful form of humanistic conviction – he understood how those with whom he spoke felt, thought, and what they needed; he also placed a heavy emphasis upon thinking through their lenses, and framing agreements in a way that preserves consensus, minimizes differences, whilst maintaining – at their core – China’s interests alongside others. He was undeterred by setbacks, unprovoked by attempts at so doing, and open to making compromises and exchanges in order to facilitate China’s continued, long-term rise. Such wisdom and magnanimity are certainly virtues that diplomats from both sides of the Pacific should appreciate more today.

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