China’s “Partnerships”

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Min Ye (Coastal Carolina University)



I was recently at a conference in Milwaukee with Min Ye (Coastal Carolina University), where he presented some interesting new research on China-ROK relations. In passing, he made an interesting point that many of us have probably missed: that China in fact has a very articulated hierarchy for all of its diplomatic relations. Drawing on data from a story at the Beijing Times and the Chinese version of Wikipedia hosted by Baidu, he has tracked Beijing’s diplomatic pecking order.

Of the 172 states that have diplomatic relations with China, 60 states (and several regional organizations such as the EU) have some type of “partnership” (伙伴关系) with China. The exact language appears improvised, and will sometimes add adjectives; for instance, the Sino-Pakistani relationship is called an “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership” (全天候战略合作伙伴关系). But in fact, it appears that there is a rank ordering.

  • The top level is a “comprehensive strategic partnership” (全面战略伙伴关系) a status held by 28 states: the EU, UK, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Denmark, Belarus, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, Algeria, Russia, Germany, Pakistan, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, New Zealand, and Australia.
  • The next tier is occupied by 20 “strategic partnerships” (战略伙伴关系): Afghanistan, South Korea, India, Sri Lanka, ASEAN, the African Union, Peru, UAE, Angola, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia, Poland, Nigeria, Canada, Serbia, Chile, Ukraine, Ireland. The China-ROK partnership is exemplary of “upward mobility” in diplomatic relations, being upgraded four times after normalization: in 1998 to Cooperative Partnership; in 2003 to a Comprehensive Cooperative Partnership; in 2008 Strategic Cooperative Partnership; and in 2014—during the Park-Xi summit—to an “enriched strategic cooperative partnership.”
  • The third level is a “comprehensive cooperative partnership,” (全面合作伙伴关系) held with the Republic of Congo, Nepal, Croatia, Tanzania, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Romania.
  • Finally four states--Jamaica, Hungary, Albania, and Fiji—enjoy “cooperative partnerships(合作伙伴关系).”

It is worth noting this still leaves 112 states with no formal partnership agreements; as the foregoing suggests, these include mostly smaller African, Latin American Caribbean and island states. However, two omissions we noted were Singapore and Egypt, the latter perhaps because of the Arab Spring.

It is interesting that the United States only entered this list in 2011 with an agreement—at least in China’s eyes—to establish a cooperative partnership, the lowest rung on the ladder. Based on the information provided on the two websites above, China and the US established a “constructive strategic partnership” (建设性战略伙伴关系) in 1997; we are not uncertain, but it appears that “constructive” indicates lower ranking (as perhaps in the diplomatic euphemisms of “constructive” talks). However, when President Bush called China a strategic rival after taking office, the China-US relationship was downgraded to “constructive cooperative” relationship (建设性合作关系) in 2002 and the term “partnership” was removed. The relationship “recovered” to a “cooperative partnership” in 2011 during Hu Jintao’s state visit. Interestingly, the US language reporting on the state visit by Hu Jintao, speaks of building a “positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship,” which would have bumped us up another notch. However, at the Sunnyland summit, Presidents Xi and Obama announced that the two countries will establish a “new type of relationship between major powers” (新型大国关系), a category that would be sui generis. We will now see where the relationship goes with the surprisingly positive results of the APEC meeting on climate change and other issues, which we will cover in a separate post.

It is also noteworthy that North Korea does not have one of these partnerships with China, reflecting its special status. Kim Il-sung signed the North Korean-Soviet Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty in 1961, shortly after signing a similar treaty with the Soviet Union. The China-DPRK treaty has been extended twice (1981 and 2001); the Soviet treaty lapsed and was revised—and downgraded—in 1999.

There is clearly an interesting project here tracing the timing of these partnerships and the substantive meaning of the concept. For example, do these agreements reflect an actual substantive template, or only a diplomatic signal?

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