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.
Real strategic alliance or friendship is not a commodity that can be bought and bartered casually. It is based on shared security interests, fortified with similar ideological values and enduring trust. China excels in "transactional diplomacy" -- romping around the world with its fat checkbook, supporting (usually poor, isolated, and decrepit) regimes like Angola and Sudan in return for favorable terms on natural resources or voting against Western-sponsored resolutions criticizing China's human rights record. And the world's second-largest economy will remain bereft of dependable strategic allies because of three interrelated factors: geography, ideology, and policy.
For one thing, China is situated in one of the toughest geopolitical neighborhoods in the world. It shares borders with Japan, India, and Russia; three major powers which have all engaged in military conflicts with China in the 20th century. It still has unresolved territorial disputes with Japan and India, and the Russians fear a horde of Chinese moving in and overwhelming the depopulated Russian far east. As natural geopolitical rivals, these countries do not make easy allies. To the southeast is Vietnam, a defiant middle power which has not only fought many wars with China in the past, but is apparently gearing up for another contest over disputed waters in the South China Sea. And just across the Yellow Sea is South Korea, historically a protectorate of the Chinese empire, but now firmly an ally of the United States.
That leaves countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Nepal, weak states that are net strategic liabilities: expensive to maintain but that yield minimal benefits in return. In the last decade, China wooed more important Southeast Asian nations into its orbit with a charm offensive of free trade and diplomatic engagement. While the campaign produced a short-lived honeymoon between China and the region, it quickly fizzled as China's growing assertiveness on territorial disputes in the South China Sea caused Southeast Asian nations to realize that their best security bet remained the United States. At the last East Asian Summit in Bali in November 2011, most of the ASEAN countries spoke up in support of Washington's position on the South China Sea.
China may be North Korea's patron, but the two countries dislike each other intensely. Beijing's fear of a reunified Korea motivates it to keep pumping massive aid into Pyongyang. Despite having China as its gas station and ATM, Pyongyang feels no gratitude towards Beijing, and rarely deigns to align its security interests with those of China: Consider North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons, which has dramatically worsened China's security environment. Worse still, Pyongyang repeatedly engaged in direct negotiations with Washington behind Beijing's back during the China-sponsored Six-Party Talks, illustrating that it was always ready to sell its "friend" and neighbor out to the highest bidder. Yet China has little choice but to smile and play nice, as its ties with a reunified Korea would be worse: If the democratic South absorbs the North, the new country would almost certainly continue and possibly strengthen its security relations with the United States, instead of growing closer to China.
Of all its neighbors, only Pakistan has produced genuine security payoffs for China. But as internal turmoil weakens the Pakistani state, the net benefits of this relationship are decreasing. China's expanding trade and security ties with the Central Asian autocracies face competition from Russia (their traditional protector) and the United States; these states may need China to balance against the other great powers coveting their resources and strategic locations, but they are too fearful of falling deeply into China's orbit to form genuine alliances with it.