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What “Partnerships” Does China Have?


Xiang Haoyu, a research fellow at a prominent Chinese think tank, presents a typology of China’s diplomatic partnerships – which range from “strategic” partnerships (the most common type, held with at least 80 countries) to “all-weather” or “permanent” partnerships, describing very close ties with countries such as Pakistan, Venezuela, and Belarus. Xiang contrasts Beijing’s pursuit of partnerships to the “zero-sum” alliance network of the West, and suggests partnerships are a powerful diplomatic tool for Beijing that can be flexibly adapted to the counterpart country’s conditions and needs.

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Question: Yu Yan, Secretary of the Party Committee of Zhaojia Town, Zhuji City, Zhejiang Province


In the news, we often hear that China has established partnerships with countries with which it has diplomatic relations. I would like to ask, what partnerships does China have? What is the meaning of each one?


Explanation: Xiang Haoyu, Distinguished Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Institute, China Institute of International Studies

解读:项昊宇 中国国际问题研究院亚太研究所特聘研究员 

In recent years, the word “partner” has appeared frequently in Chinese diplomacy. The report to the 20th Party Congress pointed out that China adheres to the development of friendly cooperation with other countries on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, promotes the building of a new type of international relations, deepens and expands global partnerships on the basis of equality, openness, and cooperation, and is committed to expanding the points of convergence of interests with other countries. Since the 18th Party Congress, the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core has actively built a partnership network that spans the globe. This has become an important part of the theoretical and practical innovations of major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics in the new era.


Partners rather than alliances: China’s “partners” are all over the world


Tracing back to its roots, the Chinese word “partner” (伙伴) was previously written as “fire companion” (火伴) meaning one who shares your fire, which originated from the military. According to the explanation in the Cihai dictionary, “fire companion” is an ancient military system. Five people made up a row, and every two rows had a fire, so 10 people would share each fire. These 10 were called fire companions. In modern times, this word generally refers to people participating in an organization or engaging in some kind of activity together. In modern international relations, a “partnership” (结伴) is an independent international cooperative relationship established between countries based on common interests that seeks to achieve common goals through joint actions.


Since modern times, the idea of “alliances” based on a division between friends and foes and zero-sum strategic games has long been dominant in international relations. After the end of the Cold War, as the opposition between the Eastern and Western camps diminished and globalization and regional integration flourished, “partnership” gradually replaced the idea of “alliance” and became the mainstream relationship in international relations. Different from an “alliance” which requires the conclusion of a mandatory and binding covenant, a “partnership” is more flexible. Countries can establish different levels of partnerships based on their own national conditions and development needs. Today, the English word “partnership” is widely used in the diplomatic practice of countries around the world.


China proposed a policy of non-alignment as early as the 1950s. After the end of the Cold War, China further clarified the principle behind its diplomatic policy as “partnership and non-alignment” to adapt to changes in the international situation, and initiated the diplomatic practice of constructing “partnerships.” In 1993, China and Brazil reached a consensus on establishing a strategic partnership, and Brazil thus established a “strategic partnership” with China. In April 1996, Russia and China established a strategic partnership of coordination for the 21st century. In October 1997, China and the United States proposed to work together to establish a constructive strategic partnership for the 21st century. Driven by major power relationships, China has successively announced the establishment of partnerships with a succession of major global powers such as the European Union, France, the United Kingdom, ASEAN, and Japan since the mid-1990s. At the same time, China has insisted on planting its feet in neighboring regions and joining hands with a wide range of developing countries as a priority in the promotion of its partnership layout.


Since the 18th Party Congress, under the guidance of head-of-state diplomacy, China has widely and deeply made friends, and its global partnership network has continued to expand. Almost every major diplomatic initiative of General Secretary Xi Jinping leads to the growth or upgrade of China’s foreign partnerships. Currently, among the 182 countries that have established diplomatic relations with China, nearly 100 countries have the title of “partner” in their bilateral relations, with partners covering five continents around the world. In addition, China has established various forms of partnerships with more than 10 regions and regional organizations, including the European Union, the African Union, ASEAN, and the Arab League.


China’s partnerships can be roughly divided into five categories:


China’s establishment of various types of partnerships with foreign countries is not only based on international practice, but also features Chinese characteristics. China does not have strict and explicit conditions and standards for the designation of various diplomatic relations with the title of “partnership.” This is mainly determined through consultation based on the wishes of both parties, highlighting flexibility and autonomy. Therefore, the “partnerships” established by China are wide-ranging and diverse, with more than 20 types. In addition to being labeled with first-level attributes such as “strategic,” “cooperative,” and “friendly,” they can also be further labeled with second-level attributes such as “comprehensive,” “all-round,” “all-weather,” “new type,” and “innovation.” This positions bilateral relations in a more detailed and precise manner and reflects the uniqueness of partnerships “tailor-made” for different partners. If we take an inventory of China’s partnerships, they can be roughly divided into five categories:


General partnerships. These partnerships include the “friendly partnership” with Jamaica and the “new-type cooperative partnership” with Finland.


Partnerships that start with “comprehensive” or “all-round.” These partnerships include the “comprehensive cooperative partnerships” with the Netherlands, Croatia, and other countries, the “innovative comprehensive partnership” with Israel, the “all-round high-quality forward-looking partnership” with Singapore, and the “all-round friendly cooperative partnership” with Belgium.


General strategic partnerships. These partnerships include the “strategic cooperative partnerships” with India, South Korea, and other countries, the “strategic partnerships” with Nigeria, Canada, Ukraine, and other countries, and the “friendly strategic partnership” with Austria.


Strategic partnerships that start with “comprehensive,” “global” and “all-round.” These partnerships include the “comprehensive strategic partnership for a new era” with Russia, the “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnerships” with nearly 20 countries including Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Kenya, the “comprehensive strategic partnerships” with about 30 countries including Italy, Malaysia, Spain, and Indonesia as well as ASEAN and the European Union, the “all-round strategic partnership” with Germany, and the “global comprehensive strategic partnership” with the United Kingdom.


Strategic partnerships that start with “all-weather” and “permanent.” These partnerships include the “all-weather strategic cooperative partnerships” with Pakistan, Belarus, and Venezuela and the “permanent comprehensive strategic partnership” with Kazakhstan.


Among the partnerships mentioned above, “strategic partnerships” are the most common in today’s international relations and are also the most numerous type among China’s partnerships. Because of its macro significance and overall orientation, “strategic” often indicates a higher level of bilateral political relations. It not only demonstrates that bilateral exchanges and cooperation in various fields are very close, but also shows that coordination and cooperation exist between the two sides in international and regional affairs. Currently, there are more than 80 bilateral partnerships described with the word “strategic” in China’s foreign relations, highlighting the breadth and depth of China’s global partnership network.


Taking a closer look at China’s rich and diverse positioning of “strategic partnerships,” it is not difficult to find that there are subtle differences and particularities among them. For example, “comprehensive strategic partnership” adds the word “comprehensive” to “strategic partnership,” which means that this partnership covers a wider range of fields, including politics, economics and trade, security, culture, and international and regional affairs. It shows that both parties recognize and pursue a higher level of mutual relations. For example, the strategic partnerships between China and Pakistan, Belarus, and Venezuela highlight the “all-weather” positioning of the partnerships, indicating that these bilateral relations can withstand the test of changing international situations. These are “iron” friendships based on a high degree of political mutual trust and friendly feelings. It not only means that the two sides practice extensive and in-depth cooperation in various fields, but also that they support each other in international and regional affairs and advance and retreat together.


Not called a “partner,” but still a friend


As a concept in international relations, “partnership” indicates the overall level of development of bilateral relations, but it is not the only criterion for distinguishing good or bad relations. Countries that have established “partnerships” also have conflicts and differences, and countries that have not established “partnerships” can still carry out extensive exchanges and cooperation.


China’s positioning of partnerships reflects the degree of mutual trust and cooperation. Although to some extent partnerships reflect the closeness or distance between countries, different positionings are not superior or inferior in themselves. China has always upheld the principle that all countries, big or small, should respect each other and receive equal treatment. China’s positioning of its partnerships with foreign countries and organizations has never been constrained by factors such as ideology, political system, geographical distance, or economic level. China’s partners include a wide range of developing countries as well as major Western developed countries.


Looking around the world today, although peace, development, and cooperation are still the trend of the times, some Western countries are stuck to the Cold War mentality and base themselves on considerations of great power competition and confrontation between camps. Their foreign relations are full of ideological and geopolitical considerations, and they have mixed feelings about building partnerships with China. Affected by this, China’s positioning of its “partnerships” with individual countries such as the United States and Japan has also regressed. Although the word “partner” is not found in the current positioning of the relationship between China and the United States as a “new type of major power relations” or the “strategic mutually beneficial relationship” between China and Japan, this does not impact the great importance China attaches to Sino-U.S. and Sino-Japanese relations. China is committed to developing Sino-U.S. relations that feature “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and mutually beneficial cooperation” and promotes the practice of a political consensus of “cooperative partners rather than threats to one another” on the part of China and Japan. This fully reflects China’s sincere willingness to develop partnerships with the United States and Japan.


It should be pointed out that international relations are never static, and any bilateral relationship is dynamically evolving. China has not yet established partnerships with some countries, but this also indicates areas with greater development potential. Continuously expanding and deepening its global partnerships is an inevitable requirement for China in promoting the construction of a community with a shared future for mankind and a new type of international relations. It is also an important assurance for promoting the implementation of the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative, and the Global Civilization Initiative. China’s diplomatic thinking of “partnerships, not alliances” aligns with the trend of the times and conforms to the general trend of history. As China’s global partnership network becomes denser and denser, the path of major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics becomes broader and broader.


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Cite This Page

项昊宇 (Xiang Haoyu). "What “Partnerships” Does China Have? [中国的“伙伴”关系有哪些?]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in Study Times [学习时报], October 20, 2023

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