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Digital Archive International History Declassified

June 26, 1969


This document was made possible with support from the MacArthur Foundation, Leon Levy Foundation

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    Crema outlines the current trends of Chinese foreign policy as Chinese mission leaders abroad gradually return and border tensions with the USSR arise.
    "Letter from Mario Crema to Pietro Nenni," June 26, 1969, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Historical Archive of the Italian Foreign Ministry. Obtained by Enrico Fardella and translated by Joe CaliĆ².
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Beijing, June 26, 1969

Dear Minister,

It is probably premature to outline a picture of Chinese foreign policy after the 9th Congress. Lin Biao’s political report (unfortunately we do not have the texts of the speeches delivered by other government officials and in particular Zhou Enlai) offered a glimpse of what China’s stance will be on the international scene in the near future.

As several observers have pointed out, Beijing’s general foreign policy guidelines will not change, although, at least in formal terms, a greater flexibility can be expected compared with the intransigence of the past three years; however, it is still early to expect that China may return to pre-revolution positions: China’s leaders are leaving the Cultural Revolution with greater self-confidence despite the sensational setbacks on the international scene, with greater boldness, and substantially, with the usual unwavering inflexibility.

In the West there are hopes that after this domestic upheaval Beijing will finally show a “sign of good will”. However, our concept of good will is completely different from China’s; we expect Beijing to renounce its intransigence and perceived superiority, that Beijing be willing to deal with the various international issues like any other country. As far as I know China, I believe that in the best of cases we will have to wait several decades for this to occur. China’s communists will never change their mentality, they will never cede to any other positions of principle. They will continue to conceive international relations not so much in terms of law but rather of equity. For instance, no one doubts that Taiwan is Chinese, but it is inconceivable for us that Beijing does not intend to consider any possible compromise, albeit temporary and with the longer-term goal of the island’s return to its homeland.

In terms of equity, for Beijing, Taiwan is China and so the issue is closed; discussing this would mean challenging the principle of equity; the international problems linked to the island are simply ignored or considered an act of hostility or interference in Chinese domestic affairs.

Only a serious effort by the Chinese to pursue its return into the international community more actively should be considered a sign of “good will”. There has been talk of this return for over a year now, namely since the Cultural Revolution started its downward path. It is likely now, with the return of many ambassadors to the various embassies, that something more concrete can be expected. However, this return will proceed more slowly for two reasons. In terms of domestic policy, the work to rebuild the party and public administration is far from over. If the party, at least on paper, has been rebuilt, it does not mean that it will work as Mao Zedong and his companions expect. The very delay in summoning the People’s Congress - which according to rumors, was supposed to follow the Party’s - seems to be proof that the leadership still has many serious problems to tackle. Put otherwise, the majority of attention continues to be focused above all on domestic affairs.

In terms of foreign policy, Beijing must tear down then its barrier of diffidence, suspicion and hostility that three years of Cultural Revolution have built around China; this will take a long time.

Some events have characterized Chinese foreign policy in recent weeks; please allow me to examine here two of the most relevant aspects.

1. Gradual return of Chinese mission leaders abroad. This is probably one of the first signs of normalization of Chinese diplomatic activities. The most noteworthy thing is that these are career diplomats and not politicians. They are officials who, after more than two years, are returning to their old positions and officials who have received new assignments. There has been no news of any of them for over two years, namely from when they were called back home.

The first to leave were Geng Biao to Tirana and Huang Zhen to Paris, both career diplomats, but also Central Committee members. There is little to say about the former; Beijing’s move was clearly more propagandistic than political; it was a way of underscoring the importance that Beijing continues to attach to Albania, virtually its only ally. The reasons why it was deemed expedient to cover Paris before elsewhere are more interesting. Firstly, there is the fact that the talks on Vietnam are being held in Paris. This is an issue of vital importance to China, though ignored for some time now by the local press. Zhou Enlai’s message on the occasion of the recent recognition of the provisional South Vietnamese government reveals the possibility of Beijing accepting a solution other than a complete victory of the Liberation Front. The decision of the U.S. to withdraw some troops from the region, despite the distortions of the local press and propaganda, must have given rise to a sense of satisfaction or relief. At the time of the U.S. escalation, Beijing really believed in the possibility of a U.S. invasion, as it now believes in the possibility of an attack in the North. For some time now, this U.S. threat is no longer spoken of, a sign of decreased concern in the South.

Some Asian diplomats in Beijing have linked Huang Zhen’s return to Paris with talks that are allegedly underway between the Italian embassy and the Chinese embassy to possibly establish diplomatic relations. Huang Zhen is said to have left with these instructions.

The French embassy did not hide their sense of satisfaction not only at the assignment of one of the first Chinese ambassadors to Paris, but also at the courtesies that have been reserved for the new French ambassador on his arrival in China. Moreover, the departure of the plane from Shanghai to Beijing was delayed two hours to allow the new French ambassador, who was waiting for his connecting flight to the Chinese capital, to have a long conversation with Huang Zhen who was leaving for Paris. During talks between Manac’h and Tung Piwu (who still receives the credentials of the new ambassadors since the Liu Shaoqi’s successor has not yet been elected) almost all the problems concerning the two countries were touched upon and the Chinese expressed, once again, their widely known points of view on the international situation.

However, there is another and more general meaning that can be attributed to Hang Chen’s return. Beijing seems to consider Paris as one of the centers of the so-called “intermediate group”. France’s policy of independence towards the United States on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other seems to have drawn China’s interest in its approach towards the countries of Western and Eastern Europe. Now China’s two main enemies are the United States and Russia, and conciliation with either one of them is now considered impossible: the United States would have to abandon Taiwan completely and end its “invasion” in Southeast Asia and in Japan and so, as already mentioned, cooperation based on the five principles of peaceful coexistence would be possible. As for the Soviet Union, the chance of conciliation seems to be even more remote: first, there is Soviet domestic policy, which is moving in the exact opposite direction of China’s; Moscow would also need to entirely abandon its foreign policy, which, since Stalin’s death, has been increasingly distancing itself from China’s. In this case as well, there are definitely reasons for divergence without speaking, of course, of the delicate border problems that have recently worsened. Obviously, the Chinese would give very little in exchange for any concession that Moscow or Washington would be willing to make. In these conditions, the Chinese objective is to increasingly broaden the rift between the countries of Western Europe and the United States, on one side, and those of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union on the other. The Chinese stance towards individual European countries will depend on the degree of friendship with one of the two aforementioned superpowers.

2- Border tensions with the Soviet Union

The other piece of news of recent weeks regards the repeated border incidents with the Soviet Union and the mutual accusations launched.

The new fact does not actually regard the incidents; both sides have revealed to us that these incidents have been occurring for years along the entire border. It is very likely that the recent of these, including the one on the island of Damanski or Zhenbao, are no more serious than those that have occurred in the past and of which we know nothing. The only novelty here is the fact that both parties want to exploit these events politically. If related to the Moscow Conference, it must be acknowledged that the Chinese have won the first round - the evidence of China’s aggression, or alleged aggression, was not enough to join together the communist parties in condemning Beijing, as urged by Moscow. If instead the objectives of these campaigns of accusations are broader, the Russians have probably scored a point in their favor: the Chinese, despite everything, have not succeeded in completely convincing world public opinion of the Soviet Union’s aggression and imperialist policy. At any rate, I believe I can rule out – at least with regard to China – that the incidents were exploited only in the light of domestic policy objectives. After the obvious indignation following the Zhenbao incident, the issue – although still widely covered in the press almost every day – has not led to the same reactions among the masses, which are concerned about other domestic issues. The Chinese pointed out that tsarist Russia had occupied over a million square kilometers of Chinese territory through the inequitable treaties of the previous century, but that it was willing to “settle” the borders based on those very treaties. It is deemed that Beijing is not claiming territories occupied by Russia centuries before, but is actually aiming at border changes to its benefit, of course. As genuine as it may be, China’s “good will” is proof of Beijing’s ability to threaten, launch insults and accusations, but nothing more. In military terms, it is absolutely unprepared to face any war whatsoever outside its borders and it is perfectly aware of this weakness.

My Russian colleagues have told me that, rather than seeking immediate and limited territorial advantages, Beijing actually aims to falsely create and fuel a dispute, which in the future could justify a more serious threat. I believe that probably at the moment neither of the two parties is interested in reaching an agreement on an issue which in actual fact is not of vital importance. Both Beijing and Moscow have a potential weapon for mutual attack and accusation, and undoubtedly they will put this to use in the future.

Please accept, Mr. Minister, my most sincere regards.

Mario Crema



Pietro Nenni

Minister of Foreign Affairs



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