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China's foreign policy principles under stress

Maintenance of a declared commitment to peaceful coexistence and non-interference could be become untenable with its practices.

The Gwadar port is in Baluchistan, the home of an armed nationalist movement.

AS China's power and economic strength have grown, its practices in the outside world have come to appear increasingly out of synchrony with its declared bases for international relations.

In negotiations with India in 1954, China proposed that relations between the two states should be founded on certain fundamental principles. The proposed guidelines were embodied in a treaty between the two states and were subsequently advanced as an essential element in China's relations with other countries. They were known as the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence:

  • Mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty;
  • Mutual non-aggression;
  • Mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs;
  • Equality and cooperation for mutual benefit;
  • Peaceful co-existence.

China still presents these principles as underpinning its foreign relations, but it is increasingly difficult to reconcile them with its expanding involvement in other countries.

There were always tensions between declared policy and practice on the ground.

The principle of "mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs" was welcomed by many states in the developing world that resented criticism by Western governments or institutions of their record on democracy, human rights and, latterly, protection of the environment. When a crisis erupted within a country or it became the target of international criticism, China - if it commented at all - would say that it was a matter for the people of that country to resolve. There were problems with this position.

While China maintained that, in conducting its relations with other countries without reference to their internal affairs, it was practising a policy of non-interference, it did not look that way to dissident and oppositional forces. For them, it appeared that China was, in fact, intervening by bolstering the political standing of their governments and strengthening them economically. This would hardly be an issue in states that had democratically elected governments with a valid claim to be representative of the wishes of their people, but it was a problem in states ruled by dictators, military juntas, oligarchs and other species of non-representative rulers, as well as in states with restive minority nationalities that did not accept the right of the state under which they lived to rule them.

"The people", in these situations, were denied the power to decide the fate of their country or region, short of a massive upheaval in power relations.

Before China became the economic powerhouse that it is now, these problems might be overlooked, but they are becoming acute as it builds trade relations, enters into partnerships and invests in many other countries.

One of the first places where a sign of the kind of troubles that lay ahead might have been recognised was Sudan. The China National Petroleum Corporation invested in oil exploration and development there (mostly in the south) in the late 1990s, while the civil war between north and south was still in progress.

The South Sudan People's Liberation Movement denounced China's role as providing support to the Sudanese government. The war ended in 2005, and two years later, South Sudan became an independent state. Had it chosen to take its revenge upon China through public criticism or nationalisation of China's oil stake, that might have been highly embarrassing, but the new government felt itself to be so utterly dependent on an income stream from China that it worked on a "business as usual" basis.

China was subsequently drawn into a deeper involvement in South Sudan as a result of the civil war that broke out in December 2013. It took part in mediation between the rival factions and subsequently contributed to the UN peacekeeping mission in the country from 2015 onwards - the sort of direct troop commitment it had previously avoided.

The One Belt and One Road programme only further brings the contradictions in official Chinese policy into focus.

One element in this strategy is the creation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a trade and communications network extending from western China to the Indian Ocean through Pakistan. This involves over US$40 billion worth of investments. A key element of the scheme is the development of the port of Gwadar, over which China will have administrative control for 40 years.

This has the potential to mire China in internal Pakistani conflicts. Gwadar is in the Pakistani part of Baluchistan, where an armed nationalist movement has long campaigned for an independent Baluch state. The route through Pakistan to Gwadar also passes through areas where the Pakistani Taleban are active. Should the Pakistani military be unable to guarantee the safety of Chinese nationals working in Gwadar or travelling to and fro in the region, it would seem unlikely that China would be able to avoid some form of military commitment.

China's largest single oil supplier is Saudi Arabia. When Xi Jinping visited the kingdom in January 2016, he agreed on a joint statement with the Saudis in support of "the legitimate regime in Yemen", meaning the leadership of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, supported by the Saudis, a move that amounted to taking sides in a complicated civil war.

In 2016, China established its first overseas military facility in the little Horn of Africa state of Djibouti. This was reportedly a logistics base to support anti-piracy operations in the region. Djibouti is at peace, but it also hosts Camp Lemonnier, a large US base, just a few miles from the Chinese naval base: what complications might ensue should there be a deterioration in Sino-US relations is anyone's guess.

In May, 2017, China's Citic group was reported by Reuters to be seeking a majority share in Kyauk Pyu, a deep sea port in Myanmar, on the Bay of Bengal. The port is in Rakhine state, from where tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled in the recent past.

In December, 2017, the Sri Lankan government signed a 99-year lease on the port of Hambantota with a Chinese state-owned company in order to help it to service debts to China that totalled over US$8 billion. The port had originally been built for Sri Lanka through Chinese aid, but was a commercial failure.

Hundreds of China companies are investing overseas. Where investments go, workers go. Over a million Chinese nationals work in countries on the African continent and in Asia, they are present in such troubled places as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Inevitably, this expansion of China's investments and its employment of large numbers of its own nationals in countries that may suffer from high unemployment and limited work opportunities has aroused opposition. Much of it is nationalist, with protestors making comparisons between the former colonial powers and China and their respective companies. Some of the opposition is more immediate: villagers protesting their eviction from their homes to allow the development of Hambantota, for instance, were only responding like people anywhere else in the world whose livelihoods are threatened in the name of progress.

China has so far chosen to avoid armed intervention in countries where it has investments and workers, even when its nationals have been killed or kidnapped; it has evacuated its citizens from the most dangerous areas (as it did from Libya in the turmoil around the fall of Gaddafi) and sometimes paid kidnappers for the release of hostages. The more its overseas commitments grow, however, the less and less probable it seems that it will continue to react in this way. Nationalism within China, a president who projects the image of a strong leader, as well as higher economic stakes, may paint the PRC government into a corner so that it finds itself acting in ways similar to other powerful states in the recent past: propping up friendly, but unpopular governments, exerting pressure to protect Chinese investments against calls for the indigenisation of foreign-owned assets, and, when it sees important interests threatened, resorting to force.

In these circumstances, the maintenance of a declared commitment to the principles of peaceful coexistence, and particularly, that of non-interference, will become untenable.

  • The writer is a Singapore-based freelance writer.

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