Reflecting on 45 Years of Modern Sino-French Relationship
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 …
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