Cross comparison between US in 1930s and Chinese non-aligned policy
December 4, 2022 • 10 mins
The study of neutrality has always been concentrated on the “important” forces in the world for very realistic reasons, such as their existence can affect other countries and regions, even alter the concepts of neutrality itself.
As we turn our sights to modern history, America was definitely one important case for the study of neutrality. From the very beginning of American history, it has been covered itself with the protection of neutrality, such instinct towards neutrality even left mark in their very ideological foundation, such as the George Washington’s Farewell Address, specifically suggested US to avoid taking parts of other countries wars, making alliances and continuing protect free trade. However, more than just participating neutrality, US also was an important member to modify or “improve” neutrality as a conception. From Traditionalist concept of neutrality, to Neo-isolationism (marked by Three Acts), to Internationalist Neutrality, America has defined “neutrality” many times from its own interests, sometimes (actually most the time) contradict with the international recognization.
Before 1930s in US, the mainstream foreign policy style were typical traditionalists approach of neutrality, which based on the terms that have been settled on the Hague Convention in 1907. However, what happened afterwards is the total transformation into Neo-isolationism without being direct suggested or forced by foreign powers. In this paper, I will not only introduce the motivations and progress for this transformation, but also the influence and development for such change afterwards.
Different from US, my second subject for this paper is not falling into a traditional definition of neutrality. Even that it deviated from the path of neutrality that Hague Convention set, US foreign policy in 1930s still counted as a neutrality policy in common sense. However, what China has achieved after its modern reestablishment, cannot easily be categorized as neutrality, rather than a choice that has made due to specific development strategy consideration. After WW2, the international order fall into bipolar pattern, which also brought an endgame for traditional neutrality. Except several neutrals who found their ways to survive, most major countries must choose between blocs, and form their foreign policies upon it. Neutrals had no alliances, and those who were not neutrals, most of them found ally of their own, especially those countries who occupy important position internationally.
However, after the rising of China, as an important role in not only WW2, but also in United Nation, and the third party in Cold War (towards the end), China explicitly stated its denial to form any kind of military alliance, and yet, never said or acted as a neutral country. Such senecio has certain similarity to the case of America in the 1930s, and a detailed comparison between them should be beneficial.
In this essay, I will exam the case of China by introducing the history of Chinese foreign policy after breaking off the leadership of Soviet Union, and the dynamic of international order that initiated Chinese decision to refuse alliance, furthermore, as US in 1930s is a case in the history, Chinese non-aligned policy is a CURRENT state, which has the possibility to change from the view of future. Therefore, I’d also like to analysis the potential next stage for Chinese foreign policy under gradually increasing pressure from the West. For the conclusion of this paper, I will compare the cases between US in 1930s and China today based on the analysis I had in the previous sections, and to find out the difference and similarity of them.
US Neutrality before WW2
The isolated state of America in 1930s cannot be analyzed in isolation. The motivation of US for cutting itself from the world despite some damage to its commercial benefits, are rooted in the history of US neutrality. If we want to ask the question of “why one neutrality conception occurs”, then we must not only explain the beginning of a new conception, as well as the cease of the old system. Therefore, a closer look into the transition between Traditionalists and Neo-isolationism neutrality is necessary.
From the very beginning, United States has linked itself closely with the longing of neutrality. For the most part of early US history, US tried to break itself from the manipulation of European politics, and tried to gain as much profit as possible from the international trade. And such idea first time to be put into practice was because the war happened between revolutionary France and the Great Britain, because US alliance with France, the normal expectation is that American joining into the side of France, but the implication for this is that US going into a war with the Great Britain, which had the strongest navy force in the world. For a country like US itself, with great interests on international trading, without a strong navy to protect its ships, would be foolish to go into war with the Great Britain, thus, a declaration to be impartially neutral between this two country in this war would be necessary. Therefore, on April 22, 1793, the current president of US, George Washington issued the Proclamation of Neutrality to announce US being neutral among the conflicts of the main powers on the world. The decide to practice neutrality had been settled, yet the style and methods to conduct neutrality were discussed in heat. Eventually, an impartial neutrality was decided to be the foreign policy of US, which had been put into law by the Neutrality Act of 1794.
In the time of America being a traditionalist neutral, the protection of its commercial interests are relatively radical. Like the Plan of 1776 first timely claimed the nature of cargoes on ship should be defined by the nature the the ship, rather than itself like in the old time.
If we value the rights of neutrals only based on the related international agreement, then US best interests can be perfectly preserved after the Hague Convention of 1907, without any reason to move into Neo-isolationism neutrality, with sacrifices the commercial interests of US. However, the realistic factors that support a way of being neutral, is the willingness of belligerents to respect the rights of neutral, and the fact that if they don’t, they will receive worse payoff from this strategy game. The problem of US traditionalist neutrality in the early history is the sea power this country, cannot protect its commercial interests if the belligerents choose to neglect its “rights”. Integral neutrality must be able to maintain its “integral state” by its own power, and the mature state of integral neutrality can only be armed neutrality, which supports integral neutrality in the dimension of power dynamic. Even neutrality could be supported in the name of international law, yet, the different from domestic law, international law is a set of compromises rather than real rules that can be enforced to conduct. The vulnerability of neutrality dominants the transaction between phases of US neutrality.
The vulnerability of neutrality was also one of the most important reasons for US moved into Neo-isolationism neutrality in 1930s.
The background for American decision to adopt a rather radical neutrality is the increasing possibility of wars, and the severe damage that caused by the Great Depression in the beginning of 1930s, the fear to be drag into wars finally triumphed over the eager for trading profit. To make the fear even more real, the people and leaders in America finally realized the danger that emerged from their natural geographic location. One of the problems of neutrality treaty is sometime the reality does not go as planned. Due the the geographic isolation of US soil, all trading with Europe must go on seas. However, the management of ships with cargoes are consistently the primary dispute among the conduction of neutrality rights, and compare to other transportation methods on land, it has the most possibility to cause foreign dispute, and eventually lead to war. Furthermore, in the early phase of WW2, US did not find enough reason for it to join the fight itself, stay away from danger and grow it own strength at the same time. By the beginning of 1930s, US had already became the largest economy in the world, to avoid war until it becomes really relevant was the best strategy in American mind, like Bemis stated: “American foreign policy is now settling back into the tradition of the Fathers adapted to the circumstances of a satiated continental nation … . It is a safe ground from which to watch and wait for a better world.”
Under such consideration, US easily past the first Neutrality Act in 1935, which embargoes the trade of war related resources like arms and provisions. Such style of isolated neutrality last until the fall of France, which made US started to realize the danger of WW2 if it last. In this stage, US still only participated in the war in a rather subtle way which is provide material support to the Allies, and finally got into the war with the attack of Pearl Harbor in December 7, 1941.
Chinese Non-aligned Policy
After the establishment of New China, the dangerous foreign relationship is the first barrier of this country to grow. The WW2 just ended, the world is entering the new stage that is the Cold War, and because of the ruling party in New China is the Chinese Communist Party, the neutrality option for China is basically 0 possibility compare to other major country. If China had the chance to choose, the best option was definitely stay neutral in the Cold War, and grow economic strength, avoid security pressure from the outside world. However, more than any other countries except Soviet Union and United States, China was almost immediately being categorised as a member of the East Bloc. The reasons for this choice were simple, under the extreme anti-communism pressure from the West, China can never gain trust and protection from the West.
Soon, Soviet Union became the first country to recognize the legitimacy of China, and later became the first ally of the new found China. The early stage of this relationship was beneficial for China, because not only Soviet Union put China under its political protection, but also the economic and technological support from SU, and in return, China would support SU to against the West for the control of world.
However, in the late phase of this alliance, China became more and more disgusted to the control and manipulation of the East Bloc, especially the aggressive action of SU on the border with China. Under this situation, China enter the first phase of “non-alignment”, which means being enemy with both Blocs at the same time, in China, such policy, or diplomatic reality called “两个拳头打人 (hit two persons with two fists)”. In the modern diplomatic history of China, this phase is without question, the darkest time of Chinese international relationship.
From the 1960s, not only China want to change the dangerous strategic position, America also tried to get closer with China due to its massive loss in Vietnam War, the relationship between China and US had been improved in a great scale, which led the 1979.1.1, the day China and US finally established diplomatic relationship.
However, the Taiwan issue became the obstacle between China and US, the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 received massive critics from China, and SU seized this opportunity to rekindled its relationship with China, by recognize not only Chinese status as a socialist country, but also Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan in the speech that Leonid Brezhnev gave in 1982.3.4.
From the perspective of China, the finalization of Chinese non-alignment policy should be the 12th National People’s Congress, in which China confirmed a basic foreign policy which China will not be any country’s “lackey”, must pursue an independent path for international relation. And such policy was last until today.
Through the establishment of Chinese non-alignment, we can clearly see that it was originally a product of history, a specific solution to the dilemma that China faced between the competition of SU and US. As a country who pro East Bloc politically, yet too big for SU to control, China did not have a choice to be neutral as in traditional sense. However, China also failed to make alliance with both parties, and in the mean time, China discovered that the best improvement of its international relationship is when both Blocs trying to pursue Chinese support. Thusly, the policy of non-alignment received most support of Chinese leading class.
From the perspective of modern history, there is literally no similarity between US and China. One is an ancient empire with one of the longest history in world, one is only been found for several hundred of years; one has been dominated by Western invaders through out the modern history, and one has kept war with other countries from the soil ever since its independence. One has been tormented by absolute poverty just in 50 years ago, yet another one has been considered the most wealthy country ever since 20th century.
However, just like I demonstrated in the introduction, in the sense of neutrality, US in 1930s and China after 1970s, does share similarity for “not making alliance”. However, like I analyzed in previous section, the logic for their choice are very different, US chose to stay neutral for its economic and political benefit, which is making more money and stay out of trouble. But China chose non-alignment was a balanced state which has been reached after the failure of other alternatives. Moreover, even though China chose not to make alliance, but its a strategy to keep participating in an international competition, not to escape from it, which is entirely different from the case of US.
Different from the historical review of US neutrality in 1930s, Chinese non-alignment policy is an on-going event, which gave it possibility to change. After all, the foundation of non-alignment policy is declining. Such policy was targeted to maintain independency between the wave of competition of SU and US. However, different from 50 years before, China has replaces the position of SU, became a main player in this game, which really threw the continuance of non-alignment into questions.
- Bemis, Samuel Flagg. “Washington’s Farewell Address: A Foreign Policy of Independence.” The American Historical Review 39, no. 2 (1934): 250–68. Accessed July 21, 2020. doi:10.2307/1838722.
- Gabriel, J. (2002). The American Conception of Neutrality After 1941 [electronic resource] / by Jürg Martin Gabriel. (2nd ed.). Palgrave Macmillan UK. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230554498
- Chinese Embassy in the Kingdom of Lesotho, “Chinese Foreign Policy”, http://ls.chineseembassy.org/chn/zgjj/zghpwj/t167088.htm
- Yale Law School, The Avalon Project (2008). The Proclamation of Neutrality 1793. / by 2008 Lillian Goldman Law Library. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/neutra93.asp
- “Plan of 1776 .” Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved July 15, 2020 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/plan-1776
- BEMIS, SAMUEL FLAGG. A Diplomatic History of the United States. Pp. xii, 881. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1936. (1937). The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 192(1), 211–212. https://doi.org/10.1177/00027162371920012
- Frederic L. Paxson, Neutrality for the United States. By Edwin Borchard and William P. Lage. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937. xi + 380 pp. Appendices.), Journal of American History, Volume 24, Issue 2, September 1937, Pages 313–317, https://doi.org/10.2307/1892124
- 石家铸.论中国的不结盟政策的确立和发展.辽宁师范大学学报：社会科学版,2000(2):26–31. Translated by Author: Shi Jiatao (2000), On the Establishment and Development of the Chinese Non-Alignment Policy, Liaoning Shifan University Paper, Social Sciences Section, 2000 (2):26–31.
- The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA; Pub.L. 96–8, 93 Stat. 14, enacted April 10, 1979; H.R. 2479)