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Introduction to the Special Issue on China's Relations with Its Neighbors: Historical Perspectives on Contemporary Issues.

China shares borders with more countries than any other state in the world today. It shares land borders with fourteen nations: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Vietnam. China also shares maritime borders with eight countries: Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, North Korea, the Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam. Its neighbors include big and/or powerful states (such as India, Japan, and Russia), nuclear powers (i.e., India, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia), and unstable states, such as Afghanistan. China's neighborhood comprises the largest economic region in the world and the highest concentration of great powers and nuclear powers in the world.

China's surge to global power in the twenty-first century has caused endless debate about the implications of its rise for international politics and global stability in general and the dynamics of the US global role in particular. China is now one of the defining factors in the Asia Pacific international configuration as the rise of China has created "shock waves" in the policy choices of its neighboring countries. China's neighboring countries are also on the frontier of transformative international developments, which often involve the United States and other powers. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, concerns over China's rise, along with China's territorial and maritime disputes with its neighbors (such as the June 2017 China-India border standoff on Doklam, the China-Japan dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and the South China Sea issue) and various emergencies in its neighborhood (such as the North Korean nuclear crisis, armed conflict in northern Myanmar in November 2016, and the terrorist attack in Rakhine State in western Myanmar in August 2017), many of which are rooted in the Cold War era, complicate China's relations with its neighbors. How will China deal with its neighbors given its growing power? Global interest in China's historic engagement on its periphery has markedly increased as international leaders, analysts, policymakers, and scholars seek to understand and predict China's current and future relations with these countries.

Over the last twenty years, empirical studies of China's relations with its neighbors during the Cold War have evolved into a prominent discipline in the field of contemporary Chinese diplomatic history, even in the entire field of history. The increasing availability of a greater amount of archival documentation, the influence of new Western historical trends, the Chinese government's practical needs in handling relations with its neighbors, and the growing attention of international scholars are the driving forces of this change. In comparison with their international counterparts, mainland Chinese scholars have advantages in accessing and employing historical documents in this regard. They have also attempted to form certain broad theoretical frameworks for interpreting this history. In this introduction I first discuss the background behind the rise of empirical studies of China's relations with its neighbors during the Cold War. I introduce some of the representative works of Chinese scholars that have been published in the last two decades. I then highlight the main arguments and contributions of the five articles featured in this special issue and conclude by pointing to future directions of the field.

Historical Documentation, Methodology, and the Contemporary Concerns

In the Chinese academic world, studies of China's relations with its neighbors have been attached to China's diplomatic history. But those studies, usually in the form of consulting reports, news analyses, and commentaries for national strategic decisionmaking, rarely relied on primary sources. For various reasons those studies failed to understand the historical essence of specific issues and thus were unable to offer foresight in their policy suggestions. They provided opinions solely on a tactical, and not a strategic, level (Yu 2018). In the twenty-first century, major changes have taken place, most of which are reflected in the use of the official documents of China and target countries, the entry of younger scholars into the field, and the formation of relatively stable research teams. Thus, Chinese scholars have published cutting-edge studies, many of which have earned high praise from their international peers.

In terms of Chinese archives, between 2004 and 2008 the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) declassified three large batches of People's Republic of China (PRC) diplomatic folders (about 83,000 documents) dating from 1949 to 1965 (Yao 2015, 260). These include political, economic, diplomatic, and cultural aspects of China's dealings with its neighbors as well as personnel exchanges, border issues, and affairs concerning Chinese nationals who were living abroad. Additionally, the MFA published three documentary collections focusing on the Geneva Conference of 1954, China's policy regarding the establishment of diplomatic relations with foreign countries, and the Bandung Conference of 1955 (respectively, Waijiaobu Dang'anguan 2006a, 2006b, 2007). To compensate for the shortcomings of the MFA files, scholars have undertaken research at the provincial, municipal, and autonomous-region level archives, all of which have been declassified up to at least the 1980s and in some cases even to the 1990s. In particular, since the middle of the 1980s, Chinese government research institutions have systematically published many official collections on the history of the PRC and its diplomacy, and selected collections of writings, chronologies, and biographies of senior leaders such as Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, and Zhou Enlai have also been published. These became the foundation for serious historical research.

In addition to primary sources in Chinese, Chinese scholars have researched and utilized official documents from China's neighboring countries. In recent years, Chinese scholars have conducted archival research in Russia, Australia, Singapore, Mongolia, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and India, among other countries. For some time, Chinese scholars have also given much attention to documentation from countries such as the United States and Britain, which have affected China's relations with its neighbors. (1) These new documents from China's neighboring countries supplement the deficiency in Chinese sources caused by the only partially open nature of Chinese archives. The availability of documents from these countries makes it possible for Chinese scholars to analyze and write about China's relations with neighboring countries on the premise of bilateral or multilateral sources rather than from the sole perspective of China's foreign policy. More importantly, on the premises of this multinational and multilingual historical documentation, it is now possible for scholars to engage in serious academic study of the history of China's relations with its neighbors. Indeed, archival documents are the basis of independent and critical historical research.

It is equally important that Shen Zhihua and Yang Kuisong (East China Normal University), Tao Wenzhao (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences), Niu Jun (Beijing University), Zhang Shuguang (City University of Macau), Zhou Jianming (Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences), and Yao Baihui (Capital Normal University) have organized and published several important collections of material from foreign archives (Shen 2002, 2003, 2012, 2015b; Shen and Yang 2009; Tao and Niu 2003-2005; Yao 2016; Zhang and Zhou 2008). The publication of these original documents makes it convenient for those Chinese scholars who have neither access to these foreign documents nor the language skills needed to analyze them.

On the methodological front, Chinese scholars have continuously drawn on the experiences of Western academic trends and ideas. Chinese scholars have been able to open new areas of research and move in new directions. Since 1990, the study of US foreign relations has been affected by historiographical developments in world history, comparative history, global history, and transnational history. In particular, transnational historians rejected "the national framework for understanding the past.... They focused on migrations, trade, communications, cultural exchanges, political and religious identities, and other forms of movement across and transcendent of national borders" (Borstelmann 2016, 341, 346). Chinese historians are aware of these new historiographic trends. (2) In the twenty-first century, relying on multinational and multilingual archives, Chinese scholars researched and published works on China's relations with its neighbors from the perspective of high politics as well as of grassroots exchanges. They have indeed made some useful contributions in this area, including publications on cross-border migration and cross-border labor force movements among the socialist bloc countries. (3)

Progress in the study of China's relations with its neighbors undoubtedly has been largely due to efforts by Chinese scholars. But the guidance and promotion of the Chinese government should not be overlooked. In the 1990s, China achieved diplomatic normalization with most of its neighbors, and political and economic intercourse between China and its neighbors grew steadily. Under these circumstances, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee held a forum to discuss security issues in China's neighborhood in August 2001. The forum concluded, "Supporting the economic development of China's neighboring countries will consolidate our country's political relations with them" (Jiang 2006). With continuous economic development, China surpassed Japan and became the world's second largest economy in 2011. But security in China's neighborhood has since deteriorated, and China has entered into disputes with Japan and Southeast Asian countries over the ownership of islands and territorial waters. Thus, in the months of September and October 2013, President Xi Jinping proposed that China establish a Silk Road economic belt and a twenty-first-century maritime Silk Road (i.e., the Belt and Road Initiative). On October 24-25, 2013, a forum on China's diplomacy with its neighbors was held in Beijing, and all seven members of the CCP Central Committee Standing Committee were present. This forum established the strategic aims, basic approaches, and overall arrangements of China's regional diplomacy for the next five to ten years. Xi Jinping proposed core concepts for China's relations with its neighbors in four Chinese characters ([phrase omitted]): qin (cordiality), cheng (sincerity), hui (benefits), and rong (tolerance). To a large extent, China's diplomacy with its neighbors has emerged from its subsidiary position to great power diplomacy. It now exhibits its independent and unprecedented status. Chinese foreign policy decisionmakers have formed the common view that "great powers are the key, and the neighboring countries are the most important" (Chen and Guan 2014, 6, 8-9, 11, 14).

In recent years, the Chinese government has attached greater importance to the study of China's relations with its neighbors during the Cold War. China's National Social Science Fund (NSSF) supports the highest-level state-funded research projects in China. In the past three years, NSSF guidelines for application have included the study of China's relations with its neighbors in the categories of party history/party construction, international studies, Chinese history, world history, and religious studies, among others. Accordingly, in 2015, "Document Collection and Historical Studies on China's Neighbors' Policies Toward China," the project of Shen Zhihua and his East China Normal University team, was designated an "NSSF specially entrusted project." It won funding of 2 million Chinese renminbi (RMB) (US$290,000) for the first phase of research, with the promise of continuing support based on its accomplishments. At present, the project is in its second phase.

Theme of the Special Issue and Its Main Contents

In recent years, Chinese scholars have undertaken numerous empirical and macroscopic studies of China's foreign policy during the Cold War. Their scholarship on Sino-Soviet relations, Sino-North Korean relations, and Sino-Indian relations has received much attention and praise from foreign scholars. On Sino-Soviet relations during the Cold War, Shen Zhihua (on the period from the end of World War II to the late 1950s), (4) Li Danhui (on the period from 1959 to 1973), (5) and Niu Jun (on the 1980s) (Niu 2008, 2011) are the most prominent Chinese scholars. In addition to studying the high-level Sino-Soviet contacts and the Sino-Soviet relationship, Chinese scholars have also published work on people-to-people exchanges between China and the Soviet Union. For instance, Shen Zhihua, Gu Jikun, and You Lan have published work on, respectively, Soviet experts in China in the 1950s, Chinese workers who traveled to the Soviet Union to aid its construction, and the fate of Chinese students who studied in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. (6) There are also a number of studies on Sino-Mongolian economic relations, detailing how Chinese workers assisted economic reconstruction in Mongolia (Gu 2015; Jin 2016).

On China's relations with North Korea, the most prominent scholar is Shen Zhihua, who published a series of articles and a major book on China's relations with North Korea during the Cold War. Through unprecedented access to Chinese government documents, Soviet and Eastern European archives as well as South Korean and American documents, and in-depth interviews with former Chinese diplomats and North Korean defectors, Shen Zhihua offers a new account of the China-North Korea relationship, uncovering tensions and rivalries that shed new light on the ties between these two communist East Asian nations. His studies unravel the twists and turns in high-level diplomacy between China and North Korea from the late 1940s through the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. (7) Additionally, Liang Zhi and Dong Jie turned their focus to grassroots personnel exchanges between China and North Korea. They have published articles on the training of North Korean interns (technicians and mechanics) in China in the 1950s and 1960s (Dong 2011; Liang 2016a).

On Sino-Indian relations, Dai Chaowu undertook a comprehensive study covering a wide range of topics, among them Sino-Indian negotiations on Tibetan currency reform, India's trade controls and its embargo against Tibet, Sino-Indian border disputes, China's disposition of Indian prisoners of war after the 1962 border war, and how China forced India to revoke its trade representative office in Tibet. Dai argues that the PRC was dependent on India to deal with international issues and that it needed India's support to stabilize Tibet in the early 1950s. Thus, Sino-Indian political and economic relations were somewhat asymmetrical. But when China's foreign policy strategy changed in the mid--and late 1950s, according to Dai, the CCP leadership, especially Mao Zedong, reconsidered the nature and role of "nationalist countries," such as India under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, characterizing India's policies as "reactionary nationalism." Thereafter, the asymmetrical balance in political and economic Sino-Indian relations no longer existed (Dai 2012, 2013a, 2013b, 2014-2015, 2015, 2016).

In Southeast Asia, the evolution of China's policy toward Myanmar has received the most attention. Making use of Chinese MFA archives, Fan Hongwei conducted a comprehensive study of Sino-Burmese relations during the Cold War, arguing that geopolitics were the primary factor in shaping Sino-Burmese relations at that time. Liang Zhi reconsiders numerous issues in Sino-Burmese relations from 1949 to 1953 in light of newly available Burmese documents (Fan 2012; Liang 2016b).

The theme of this special issue is "China's Relations with Its Neighbors: Historical Perspectives on Contemporary Issues." It features five articles from junior and mid-career Chinese and foreign scholars whose works represent some of the best in the study of China's relations with its neighbors in the twenty-first century. Making use of archival documents from China and foreign countries, each article first reconstructs certain historical episodes in the history of China's relations with the target country. The author then explores how this historical episode affected the relationship in the twenty-first century. These articles add much to what we know about the historical roots of China's relations with Japan, Myanmar, Vietnam, Central Asian states, and Thailand.

Xianfen Xu explores the connections between historical-based emotional issues and economic interests in China-Japan relations and the linkage between China's renunciation of war reparations and Japan's official development assistance (ODA) to China. Using archival material from both China and Japan, she finds that there is no legal linkage between Japan's ODA to China and China's renunciation of war reparations. She argues that previous scholarship about the linkage between the ODA and reparations involved emotional arguments or interpretative entanglements surrounding the concepts of assistance and history. She concludes that, in explaining China-Japan relations, there exists a "dual gratitude theory" related to history and assistance, as well as "dual obligation and enmity theory." In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the chain reaction of mutual recrimination between the two countries became increasingly awkward, a state that has seemingly continued to the present day.

Using Burmese, Chinese, Indian, and US official documentation, and following an international history approach, Liang Zhi explores the background, process, and effects of the improvement in Sino-Burmese relations in the period from 1953 to 1955. He offers an analysis of Myanmar's National League for Democracy's policy toward China since it came to power in March 2016, thus providing the historical origins of State Counselor and Minister of Foreign Affairs Aung San Suu Kyi's friendly policy toward China.

Combining archival documentation with field investigations, Qingfei Yin moves the level of analysis down to the border space where the two peoples meet on a daily basis. She examines the tug-of-war between the states and the smuggling networks on the Sino-Vietnamese border during the second half of the twentieth century and its implications for the present-day bilateral relationship. She points out that the existence of historically nonstate space was a security concern for the modernizing states in Asia during and after the Cold War. By examining smuggling within the socialist world, this article highlights the shadow economy as a powerful transnational force that constantly challenged the all-encompassing state.

Utilizing the Kyrgyz and Kazakh archives, Alsu Tagirova examines the migration of the Uighurs from China to the former Soviet Union. She argues that the Sino-Soviet split challenged the notion of the Uighurs' common national identity across the Sino-Soviet border and that this divisiveness continues to this day, affecting the mentalities and immigration policies of the Central Asian states. She demonstrates that the roots of that hostility are deep-seated in the history of Sino-Soviet relations, and it is of utmost importance for all the governments involved in the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative to realize that peace in the region can be maintained only when people of the borderland are perceived as valuable members of society who contribute to the common prosperity of their homeland.

Although Thailand does not share a border with China, it is in close proximity. Kornphanat Tungkeunkunt and Kanya Phuphakdi examine how "China and Thailand Are Brothers" has become the diplomatic discourse that both China and Thailand commonly use to articulate their friendly relations. The authors first trace the historical contexts of the discourse into the early twentieth century, in particular its crucial role in encouraging overseas Chinese to integrate into Thai society. They then explain how the discourse provided insights for Thai and Chinese political elites into the transformation of foreign policy toward Sino-Thai normalization during the Cold War, and how the brotherhood discourse was reinforced after Sino-Thai normalization in 1975. They conclude by suggesting that rethinking the implications of the diplomatic discourse in light of Chinese characteristics in the twenty-first century will allow us to better understand China's relationship with foreign countries in general and with Thailand in particular.

Prospects and Future Direction

Looking ahead, with the deepening of China's foreign commercial and trade relations and political exchanges, and the further growth of academic endeavors, the study of China's relations with its neighbors will continue to remain a top priority in the fields of China's diplomatic history and Cold War international history. It seems highly probable that the study of China's relations with its neighbors during the Cold War will make further advances.

First, Chinese scholars have made much progress in collecting valuable and rare documents. Relying on the support of the NSSF's specially entrusted project "Document Collection and Historical Studies on China's Neighbors' Policies Toward China," scholars from East China Normal University's Center for Cold War International History Studies have collected a great number of documents on China from Mongolia, South Korea, Japan, and numerous Southeast Asian countries. Meanwhile, on October 10, 2014, the Center for Contemporary Historical Documents, which is jointly sponsored by East China Normal University and the Oriental History Studies Foundation, was established in Shanghai. It is devoted to curating, collating, cataloging, and database building. The study of China's relations with its neighbors will certainly be promoted when scholars make use of these valuable archival documents in the future. Additionally, younger scholars have paid much attention to the study of non-general languages, such as Burmese, Vietnamese, and Thai. Several universities including East China Normal University, South China Normal University, Dalian University of Foreign Languages, and Guangxi University for Nationalities have collaborated to organize summer boot camps to train graduate students and younger scholars how to read and analyze archival documents. With enhanced foreign-language skills and archival reading and analysis abilities, Chinese scholars will soon make great strides in their research and publications.

Second, given the continuous rise of China and its steady economic growth, the China Scholarship Council, local governments, and universities and research institutions have gradually increased financial support to researchers, including funding international exchanges for graduate students. Many history researchers have received generous research funding, and over the last decade they have increasingly traveled abroad to do research in international archives and to participate in international conferences. Certain doctoral students, while working on their doctoral degrees, have had the opportunity to travel to two or more countries. In recent years, several Chinese universities such as East China Normal University, Beijing University, Sun Yat-sen University, and Nanjing University have organized numerous domestic or international conferences on China's relations with its neighbors. Through these international conferences, Chinese scholars have established long-term and substantive academic relations with foreign scholars. By participating in such conferences, younger scholars, in particular doctoral students, have been able to become acquainted with new international academic trends.

Third, in recent years, Chinese universities have established numerous research institutes for the study of China's neighboring countries and regions. For instance, on November 11, 2013, Fudan University established a Center for China's Relations with Neighboring Countries. It focuses on the study of political, security, economic, diplomatic, nationality, religious, and cultural issues in China's relations with its neighbors. It now employs a team of around ten researchers. On June 6, 2016, East China Normal University established the Institute for Studies of China's Neighboring Countries and Regions, which is based at its Center for Cold War International History Studies. It has now shifted its focus from alliance relations in the two Cold War blocs to the study of China's relations with its neighbors during the Cold War. Its main agenda is to collect, collate, and translate documents relating to the policies of China's neighbors toward China during the Cold War. The institute now has a faculty of about twenty researchers who focus on Central Asia, Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. At the beginning of 2018, many Chinese scholars called for the elevation of the field of China's Neighboring Countries and Regions Studies to an independent discipline that would enjoy the same status as China's American Studies, China's European Studies, China's Japanese Studies, and China's Russian Studies. For that purpose, this new field should create a national association, an academic journal, and a forum. Shijie zhishi (World Affairs), arguably the most influential semimonthly magazine on international affairs in China, used "China's Neighboring Countries and Regions Studies" as the cover theme for its no. 8 (2018) issue and published six articles, all of which advocated for studies of China's neighboring countries and regions.


Yafeng Xia is senior research fellow, Institute for Studies of China's Neighboring Countries and Regions (History Department), East China Normal University in Shanghai, and professor of history at Long Island University in New York. He is the author of Negotiating with the Enemy: U.S.-China Talks During the Cold War, 1949-1972 (2006) and coauthor of Mao and the Sino-Soviet Partnership, 1945-1959: A New History, with Zhihua Shen (2015); Mao and the Sino-Soviet Split, 1959-1973: A New History, with Danhui Li (2018); and A Misunderstood Friendship: Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung and Sino-North Korean Relations, 1949-1976, with Zhihua Shen (2018). He has also published many articles on Cold War history and Chinese foreign relations. He can be reached at

The work on this special issue has been supported by the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities of Jinan University (project #15JNYH006), Major Platform and Scientific Research Program (Guangdong Provincial Education Department, project #2016WCTD005), and Special Entrusted Project of the National Social Sciences Fund (Document Collection and Historical Studies on China's Neighbors' Policies Toward China, project #15@ZH009).

(1.) For detailed information regarding collections, declassification, and access to official documents of these countries, see Yao (2015).

(2.) Beijing University professor Wang Lixin (2008, 2014, 2016) has published several survey articles in leading journals, introducing these new methodologies to Chinese academic circles.

(3.) Gu Jikun (2013, 2015) has published on Chinese workers who traveled to the Soviet Union and Mongolia to aid in their construction. Shen Zhihua (2011) has published on cross-border migration between China and North Korea. For an English version of the article, see Shen and Xia (2014).

(4.) Shen Zhihua has published many articles and numerous books on the topic; the most important is Shen (2013). For a shorter English version of the book, see Shen and Xia (2015).

(5.) Li Danhui has also published many articles on Sino-Soviet relations in Chinese. For her book on the Sino-Soviet split in English, see Li and Xia (2018).

(6.) See Shen (2015a), Gu (2013), and You (2014). Alsu Tagirova, a Russian national who obtained her doctoral degree from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou and then worked as a postdoctoral scholar under Professor Shen Zhihua, is now a researcher at the Center for Cold War International History Studies, East China Normal University. She examines the activities of the Soviet-Chinese Friendship Association prior to the Sino-Soviet thaw in the mid-1980s. See Tagirova (2017).

(7.) In addition to many articles, Shen Zhihua's book on Sino-North Korean relations has been published in Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and English. See Shen (2018) and Shen and Xia (2018).


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Author:Xia, Yafeng
Publication:Asian Perspective
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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