Remembering the past to secure the present: Versailles legacies in a resurgent China

Rosemary Foot, Senior Research Fellow in International Relations, has published an article in International Affairs on the legacies of the Treaty of Versailles in China.


In the century since the signature of the Treaty of Versailles, China's international status and material condition have been fundamentally transformed. The People's Republic has become powerful in ways that probably would have astonished the leaders of the early Republic of China, first established in 1911. These changes do not mean, however, that there are not potent legacies from China's nineteenth-century and Versailles-era experiences. In particular, the Versailles agreement showed China that gaining full membership of the international society of states would not be easy, despite its having joined the Allied side in the war effort. China's failure to gain either restitution of the territory of Shandong or proper acknowledgement of its status as a legally sovereign state added to the Chinese distrust of the West and Japan born out of their exploitative activities in China. The subsequent May Fourth nationalist demonstration of 1919 was the first of many prominent displays of nationalist outrage, a sentiment that provided opportunities for exploitation by successive Chinese governments. The article shows how the trials associated with removing China's unequal status in international politics condition and, in some respects, deform Chinese attitudes towards international politics to this day. In particular, it asks why China's remarkable resurgence has not changed official Chinese perceptions of world order, the tenor of its relations with other states and its view of its own place in international society more fundamentally than has in fact been the case.

Professor Rosemary Foot is Senior Research Fellow in International Relations, DPIR, Emeritus Fellow St Antony's College