While I remember every single detail of my daily life in Beijing between 1968 and 1972, I have a tendency not to turn over the political dramas of that far away time, so I hope you will forgive the more serious mistakes I make in my spare remarks.
When we consider the normalization of relations between West European countries and China in the 1960’s, we have to draw a line between the countries who did it before the American openings of ‘71(the Kissinger trips to china, Chou Enlai’s invitation to Nixon in July, and finally China’s admission to the UN), and the countries who did it after admission to the UN in October of 1971. France (1964), Canada, and Italy (autumn 1970) form the latter group, while Germany and Japan are in the former. This is a distinction that Beijing also bears in mind.
Furthermore, we have to bear in mind that even before the opening of the US to China, the establishment of diplomatic relations with China by a western country was not in Washington’s eyes a “casus belli,” as seen in the case of France. After all, the UK, Scandinavian countries, and the Netherlands had maintained embassies in Beijing since the 1950’s. What mattered most for the US was the continued presence of Taiwan in the Security Council. Canada and Italy succeeded in normalizing their relations with Beijing in 1970 without compromising the status of Taiwan in the UN.
In the case of Italy, the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, combined with the traditional prudence of Prime Minister Moro, explain why it took from 1964 to November 1970 to reach the conclusion of the normalization process. The opening in February 1965 of an Italian Trade Office in Beijing, with two diplomats aboard, was considered by Minister Fanfani to be a preliminary step towards a quick solution to the problem.
Minister Fanfani , a close friend of the Mayor of Florence La Pira, as such had recognized China in 1958. The peoples Republic of San Procolo also recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1958. Nenni, who initiated negotiations with Beijing in February 1969, would have certainly found a way to close the matter a little earlier, but this is the result when a country changes Cabinet every 11 months, as was the case in Italy at the time.
With regards to Western Europe, I would not say that China was specifically targeting any European country in order to split the west, as has been suggested. I would rather believe that every country in the west was conceiving its policy towards China in terms of national political agenda, historical reasons, and its vision of larger international equilibrium; Nenni and Fanfani’s ideas of a multipolar world were not dissimilar to Gen. De Gaulle‘s vision. This seems to be the case not only in France, but also in Italy, Canada, and later Germany and Japan as well.
When we consider the attitude of China towards Western Europe, mainly in the 60’s, there are two distinct periods:
In the first years of the Cultural Revolution, with “revolutionary diplomacy” having prevailed, most of the Chinese diplomatic corps having been called home, control of the ministry of foreign affairs lost to the extremist elements, and the difficulty of Chen Yi and Chou Enlai, Western Europe was considered so linked to the US that was not worth the effort. Suffice to recall the frustration of the French ambassadors of the time. The French opening, in itself a historic event- was the first “victim” of the Cultural Revolution abroad. Hence the Chinese support for small European Marxist-Leninist groups in opposition to Western governments and the pro-Moscow parties.
It is only with the Ussuri-Amur clashes, the Brezhnev Doctrine, the Prague Spring, the death of Lin Piao, and the restoration to power of Chou Enlai at the end of the decade, that China starts to look at Western Europe, its NATO bases, and its strong ties to Washington with greater interest. At the same time, China looks with great coldness to the classic Communist Parties, leaning pro-Moscow even after the Prague Spring of 1968 and to any kind of Ost-politick; NATO is good, and Soviet imperialism is the main enemy.
Professor Garret has clearly stated General De Gaulle’s vision in opening to China, the main perspectives and objectives of France.
What about Italy? Only the outbreak of the Korean War stopped Italy short of recognizing Beijing in the 1950’s.
Besides commercial considerations that certainly existed at the time, (the first commercial delegation to China headed by Minister of Commerce Mario Zagari in the spring of 1971, in the words of their Chinese hosts, was the largest ever received from a Western country.) there were more subtle and powerful motivations.
The Millennium in Beijing- the contemporary Chinese Pantheon celebrates the protagonists of Chinese history and civilization- only two foreigners are praised: Marco Polo and Matteo Ricci (Li Matou), whose tomb is in the garden of the Chinese Party headquarters. The third Italian is the imperial painter Giuseppe Castiglione, who designed the European component of the old Summer Palace, destroyed by Anglo-French troops in 1860 (there is still memory of that in China). Both Rome and Beijing cannot avoid celebrating the Han and Roman civilizations of 200b.c. to 200 a.d. as the apex of civilization every time they meet.
The Christian Democratic Party of Fanfani and Moro, and the Socialist Party of Nenni, the two main protagonists on the Italian side, drew their inspiration from universal principles; Roman universalism as translated into Catholic universalism, in the case of the first two, or by the ideological principle of the emancipation of the people of the all world in the case of the Socialist Nenni. Universalism, which translates itself in an effort to understand, include, and unite, is at the very bottom of the list of possible Italian diplomatic approach, hence also the great support to the UN and the blind faith in the virtue of dialogue.
In the same spirit, Italy decided to open an embassy in Hanoi in 1975, even before the fall of Saigon. The Italian correspondent Massimo Locke of l’Unita’, a representative of the Italian Communist party CC, had been present in Hanoi since 1972/73. Belgium, The Netherlands, and Germany came later.
Andreotti was the first Western leader to visit Beijing after Tiananmen. In 2010, Chinese Premier Wen, when visiting Rome, found a way to thank him by saying “You have a sense of history”, which most Italian diplomats believe to be the case.
In the same light , one can appreciate the constant efforts by Rome to engage the Gheddafis or Castros of the world, or Iran, Syria, and the PLO, long before any other western country, believing, as the Chinese would say, that if you push a cat in a corner ,he might fight as a tiger.