The rare foreign visitor to China during the Cultural Revolution often saw a huge placard at the airport boasting the farcical claim, “We have friends all over the world.” In truth, Maoist China — a rogue state exporting revolution and armed struggle around the world, and a bitter foe of the West and the former Soviet bloc — was extremely isolated. It had a few friendships with countries like Ceausescu’s Romania and Pol Pot’s Cambodia; for a few bleak years, China’s only true ally was tiny Albania.
Forty years later, a powerful and assertive Beijing has a lot more friends. Its economic presence is warmly welcomed by many governments (though not necessarily people) in Africa; European countries regard China as a “strategic partner,” and China has forged new bonds with leading emerging economies like Turkey, Brazil, and South Africa. Yet besides Pakistan, which depends on China for military and economic assistance, and which China supports mainly as a counterweight against India, Beijing has a shocking lack of real allies.