Breathing fire at the west

The Dragon, the Lion and the Eagle:
March 24, 1995

In 1958, as a very junior practitioner in the field of east Asian history, I failed to obtain a visa to visit the People's Republic of China. On the face of it, I should have been lucky: the Chinese government was in fairly upbeat mood at the time. But Britain, though more inclined to tilt towards the PRC than many other countries, was still regarded with suspicion. I, too, may have been so regarded. This book supplies clues to an understanding of what went wrong.

The goodwill between China and Britain at the time of the Geneva conference of 1954 did not overcome China's disapproval of Britain's participation in the United Nations force during the Korean war, Britain's failure to support her over her claims to the "China seat" on the UN Security Council and Britain's support for the United States over Taiwan and the offshore island issue.

This book is what author Qiang Zhai calls an "exercise in international history". He deals with the crises in east Asia that occurred almost annually between 1949 and 1958 by giving equal prominence to the standpoints of China, the US and Britain. In the latter cases he has conducted exhaustive research in the archives and among private papers. He was unable to do this for China. But, he claims, "conditions for research on the CCP's foreign relations have changed significantly over the 1980s owing to the availability of inner-party documents, the publication of memoirs by many party leaders and the People's Liberation Army commanders, as well as books and articles based on privileged access to archives and interviews with individual leaders". Included in the bibliography are ten pages of Chinese published works, mainly biographies of the 1980s and 1990s, that suggest the role taken by individual leaders in China's decision-making. The author would be the first to admit that the availability of this new literature is only the initial step on the way to an understanding of China's thinking on international affairs; but it is an important one.

It is perhaps the findings on the Korean war that are most interesting. The author confirms there is no conclusive evidence to show that Beijing was directly involved in North Korea's decision to attack the south. But, stung by the American action over the Taiwan Straits, China's leaders painfully examined whether to enter the war three months later. It appears that Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Peng Dehuai called for early intervention by the Chinese People's Volunteers, while Lin Biao, arguably the most experienced commander, opposed it. Peng was therefore appointed commander of the force. The Chinese, after they had passed the Yalu, were subject to much unwelcome advice from the Soviet ambassador, Shtykov, to continue their southward advance. After China's protests, Shtykov had to be recalled by Stalin .

This is a particularly well-organised survey of an important period in east Asian history, when that region of the world was as much in crisis as the west. Lucidly and judiciously, the author traces the evolution of China's policy and the differing responses to it from London and Washington.

Ian Nish is emeritus professor of international history, London School of Economics and Political Science.

The Dragon, the Lion and the Eagle:: Chinese-British-American Relations, 1949-58

Author - Qiang Zhai
ISBN - 0 87338 490 3
Publisher - Kent State University Press
Price - £28.95
Pages - 284pp

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