Question: What are the Five
Principles of Peaceful Coexistence? Are they really still relevant
to China’s leaders, especially given that the era of highly
ideological politics in that country seem to be a thing of the past?
Sophie Richardson: The Five Principles include mutual respect for
territorial integrity and sovereignty, nonaggression,
noninterference in others’ internal affairs, equality and mutual
benefit, and peaceful coexistence.
In brief, these translate into the following policy guidelines: that
another country’s regime type, level of development, or location has
little bearing on how the Chinese government conducts its diplomatic
relations; that while China won’t relinquish its claim to certain
territories, such as Tibet or Taiwan, it is extremely unlikely to
attack other countries; that neither do foreigners have the right to
get involved in Chinese politics nor do Chinese officials have the
right to get involved in others’ politics; and that unconditional
trade and aid are key diplomatic tools.
The ideas were developed over the course of the 1940s and refined as
the Chinese Communist Party took power, a reflection of those
leaders’ perceptions of how China had been treated by—and therefore
itself ought to treat—other countries.
Although one doesn’t hear the phrase “Five Principles” as frequently
these days, the principles clearly continue to set the boundaries
for Chinese policy, ranging from vast sums of unconditional aid to
resistance to international institutions such as the International
Criminal Court to a near-hysterical reaction to the Dalai Lama’s
meetings with world leaders.
I think the beliefs that contributed to the development of the
principles still hold—the sense of “victimhood,” a need to attend to
priorities at home, a wariness about other countries’
intentions—though rising nationalism may force the Chinese Communist
Party to take a more visible, aggressive stance.
Q: Knowing what we do about the
magnitude of the Chinese government’s diplomatic and financial
activities, particularly in the developing world, how can Beijing
claim to be practicing “noninterference”?
S.R.: It’s important to understand that the idea of
“noninterference” is actually primarily defensive, not offensive,
and the Five Principles rhetoric you’re most likely to hear is the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterating that some other country has
“no right” to criticize China.
Conversely, Chinese diplomats generally stay out of the politics of
other countries—not demonstrating support for a particular political
party in the run-up to an election, not basing aid or trade deals on
the other government undertaking reforms, not making decisions about
the establishment or suspension of bilateral ties based on what kind
of regime is in power.
These criteria are all considered fairly normal by most Western
powers in dictating their bilateral relations. To the extent that
the Chinese government engages in what looks to us like
interference, it’s typically motivated by a concern about Tibet or
Taiwan, or a trade issue. Often behavior that appears incredibly
callous, like following through on massive aid packages immediately
after a bloody coup, as happened recently in Guinea, is consistent
Q: If you’re right about the Five
Principles, what can we expect from Chinese foreign policy in the
coming decade or so?
S.R.: I think a couple of trends will be most visible, particularly
in the economic realm: enormous investment and aid that will benefit
China and at least some economic interests, though not necessarily
the population broadly, in other countries; minimal military
aggression except as it pertains to Taiwan and possibly the South
China Sea; and a greater interaction with, but still circumspection
about, particular international organizations.
Q: Some scholars argue that China’s
rise is pure aggression—a rapacious quest for natural resources,
military and economic domination of Southeast Asia, pursuit of power
at the UN Security Council—while others look more carefully at “soft
power,” including the establishment of Chinese government-funded
language programs all over the world. Where on this spectrum does
your work lie?
S.R.: First, I think that if you look exclusively at aggressive or
cooperative behavior you get a skewed view—it’s relatively rare that
you get such consistency in states’ behavior, and to me the more
interesting question is about the circumstances under which you get
a particular kind of response. Second, while it’s absolutely true
that there are ways Five Principles-based diplomacy directly
contributed to some horrific outcomes—not least in keeping the Khmer
Rouge regime alive such that it could slaughter innocent
people—there are other ways they’ve dictated more positive results
than what otherwise might be expected.
Q: Does this mean that leaders need
not be concerned about the Chinese government’s growing global
influence and its foreign policy practices?
S.R.: To the extent those leaders are concerned about trying to
leverage their own power to promote change in other countries,
particularly with respect to human rights or democratization, or
about defending established norms in international institutions,
they do need to be concerned.
The Five Principles dictate resistance to some of the fundamental
ideas upon which Western foreign policy is premised—that sovereignty
can be set aside if a government’s behavior is unacceptable, that
aid can come with demands for domestic change, that publicly
debating or scrutinizing what goes on inside another country is an
acceptable practice in international relations. It’s less a question
of gaming out a Chinese military assault on Southeast Asia than it
is of defending norms.
Q: Why the focus on Cambodia in
examining the Five Principles?
S.R.: Because it is not intuitively obvious why Beijing should have
bothered with Cambodia at all, let alone to the extent it has since
the 1950s. The costs of China’s involvement indicate that Cambodia
has somehow been particularly interesting to China and suggest that
there are compelling reasons the foreign policy choices should have
been different from what traditional schools of international
relations theory would predict.
This case captures many of the features highlighted in other
analyses of Chinese foreign policy, such as the presence of great
and small powers, varying regime types in Phnom Penh, considerable
shifts in the international environment, an assumption of affinity
between communist or authoritarian regimes—yet China’s behavior has
been reasonably consistent. This level of detail matters in
determining which factors—wealth, security, ideology, or
principles—were the primary motivation for China’s policy choices.
It shows what options were considered and rejected—a key element
missing in most other analyses of foreign policy choices.
Q: Is this the definitive work on
China’s relationship with the Khmer Rouge?
S.R.: That will be hard to produce until the Chinese government
permits access to, among other things, the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs archives and/or adopts something akin to the Freedom of
Information Act. But the equally interesting issue is that a certain
amount of damning information was already known and available,
almost as much in Chinese sources as in English or French. And in
fact my interest was less in documenting the details of every last
aid shipment during that period as it was in why the Chinese
government engaged in this relationship.
About the Author:
Sophie Richardson is a scholar
of contemporary Asian politics
and the Asia Advocacy director
of Human Rights Watch. A
graduate of Oberlin College, the
Hopkins-Nanjing Program, and the
University of Virginia, she
publishes on domestic Chinese
politics and Chinese foreign
Columbia University Press
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