The Newsletter 76 Spring 2017

China's quest

Jonathan Fulton

Reviewed title:

John W. Garver. 2016.
China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China
Oxford: Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780190261054

John Garver’s China’s Quest is a major addition to the literature covering the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) diplomatic history. Until now there has been no comprehensive single volume text on the topic in English, and Garver is exceptionally qualified for this project, having published books on China’s relations with the United States, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Iran, Taiwan, the Middle East, and India. In this book the focus is on China’s relations with the five major Asian powers: the USSR/Russian Federation, Japan, India, Iran, and the United States. His conceptual theme is the connection between domestic and international pressures that drive the PRC’s foreign relations. This is one of the most important features of this book; too often analysis of international relations ignores what is happening inside a state, focusing instead on geopolitical concerns. Garver’s approach gives equal weight to both, and his history is the stronger for it.

The book is divided into three chronological sections. The first, Forging a revolutionary state, covers the Mao era, from 1949–78. It provides an excellent account of the ideological project of trying to create a new Chinese society, a utopian communist one, and how this influenced the PRC’s Cold War relations. The importance of personalities in foreign policy is emphasized, as well as the preferences and perceptions of decision makers. Describing Mao as “an idiosyncratic combination of ideologue and revolutionary realist” (p. 173), Garver’s account explains how these traits, combined with tremendous ambition, explain many of the foreign policy decisions during Mao’s rule. It also provides an excellent description of vertical authoritarianism in action; in a subsection about the deterioration of relations with both the USSR and India in the early 1960s titled The consequences of Mao’s multiple rash decisions, Garver writes, “The swift way in which Mao arrived at these judgements suggests that they were not deeply reasoned. Had either or both of those judgements been submitted for consideration of China’s more prudent leaders or their professional staffs, those judgements would almost certainly have been discarded or greatly moderated. But Mao’s preeminence within the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] elite was such, and the fate of those who questioned his judgement grim enough, that once Mao rendered a judgement, that judgement was unassailable” (p. 161). His description of Mao’s ideological and personal leanings also contributes to a fuller analysis of the PRC’s foreign policy during the Mao era.

The second section, The happy interregnum, examines the period between 1978–89, bookended by Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power and the Tiananmen Square massacre. It emphasizes the necessity of squaring the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) ideology with a new approach to economic development before launching the Reform Era; the project remained building socialism in China. In order to accomplish this, the CCP first had to provide an ideological explanation of where the Party had gone wrong under Mao. The consensus decision was that in 1956, when Mao concluded that China still had antagonistic class enemies within, he had made a fundamental error; the problem facing China was not between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, but rather between the low level of development and the peasantry’s material needs. This ideological explanation drove the early Reform Era, and helps explain the seemingly impossible contradiction of a communist party ruling over the largest capital-driven development in history. This section provides an excellent account of the competing forces within China during this transitional period, with reformer and conservative factions both struggling for the soul of the Party, and Deng trying to strike a balance. In terms of how this shaped China’s foreign policy of the period, Garver’s analysis is especially relevant when describing the uneasy relationship between China and the USA, with American leadership expecting China’s economic reforms to lead to a form of liberal democratic capitalism, and the PRC’s determination to focus on economic development without political reform.

The third section, titled The CCP Leninist state besieged, covers the years between 1990 to 2015, a period marked by China’s deep integration into the liberal order, its incredible rise in global trade, and its perceived rise to great power status. However, it is a period also marked by domestic tension, as Chinese leaders see their continued rule as threatened by this same liberal system, dominated by liberal ideas. In the wake of Tiananmen, “a rapidly globalizing China was ruled by an anachronistic Leninist elite that saw its authority to rule profoundly threatened by the dynamics of globalization” (p. 464). Here again Garver provides a masterful account of the balancing act Chinese leaders must perform in navigating the international system and at the same time meeting myriad domestic pressures, all the while trying to maintain an ideological justification for the continued rule of the CCP. 

Rich in detail but never overwhelming, China’s Quest provides an excellent historical analysis of the PRC’s foreign relations that serves historians, political scientists, international relations specialists, China and Asian studies scholars, and the curious non-specialist reader. Garver’s analysis of the international and domestic environment that shaped China’s foreign policy, as well as his description of elite perceptions and preferences and ideological considerations, give the fullest single-volume account of the PRC’s foreign relations published in English to date.

Reviewed by Jonathan Fulton, Zayed University ( Also published at