Originally published on 2012/01/18, UN Photo by Eskinder Debebe
“I don’t think non-interference is a stubborn or outdated policy — actually I think it’s very flexible” said Dr. He Wemping, director of African Studies Section of the Institute of West Asian & African Studies, during a recent interview for the Lowy Institute for International Policy.
Indeed, the sacred non-interference principle as interpreted in the Chinese foreign policy may appear quite ambiguous. Besides, this principle seems to be sometimes overworked. So much that the concept is losing its substance. Therefore, let’s go back to the origins…
Essential principle of international law: protecting the smallest against the biggest
It is worth recalling that non-intervention or non-interference is an essential principle of international law, linked with national sovereignty and established in the United Nation Charter. This is also one of the five principles of peaceful coexistence invoked by the non-aligned in 1955 and constituting the well-known “Beijing consensus” (contrary to Washington Consensus), was originally won by the smallest countries to be protected against the biggest.
Following the idea that nation states can do whatever they want inside their territory, the non-interference principle establishes that nations have to stay out of internal affairs and national competences of other countries. However, nowadays this is questioned in the light of globalization. Sometimes, it is hard to distinguish where national sovereignty stops and where international responsibility starts. This is why we observe some interventions hold in the name of collective self defense or, supposed, humanitarian intervention duty.
Pushed to its limits by Chinese foreign policy
Historically, China has strictly stuck to the non-interference principle. Beijing’s foreign policy is said to be based on win-win cooperation and on the Wu-wei concept derived from Taoism promoting the action of non-action. In other words, as a member of the UN Security Council, China is never clearly voting for intervention in other countries. For instance, Peking and Moscow stood against NATO operations in Yugoslavia and in Kosovo. More recently they vetoed foreign intervention against Syria.
But, this leitmotiv of the Chinese foreign policy is also one of the secrets for maintaining successful trade with African and Asian countries. Due to the fact that it allows Peking to collaborate with countries blacklisted from the EU for democratic conditionality reasons. China argues that it is part of its respect policy and equality not to judge its partners. So, this principle has been invoked in order to justify the Chinese relations with the government of Myanmar, North Korea, Soudan or lately Ivory Coast.
For instance, it is quite striking to observe that the volume of exchanges between Ivory Coast and People’s Republic of China (PRC) increased from 50 million Euros in 2002 to half a billion in 2009. When Laurent Gbagbo is now appearing before the International Criminal Court of The Hague for crimes against humanity, someone could wonder whether collaborating unconditionally with illegal governments embraces the original definition of non-interference principle.
But why is China reading this principle in such an absolute way, when the bulk of the occidental world disapproves? This is not only due to oil and interests in other resources, but also because it enables to ignore the international community reprimands according to China’s internal policy. In fact, the PRC is applying the ‘Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself’ because of its policy as regards to Tibet, Taiwan or the members of Falun Gong, scorning at the same time other essential principles of international law (such as the right of people’s self-determination).
And somewhat flexible, depending on what is at stake
However, it is worth noting that, as we introduced this article, if China has most of the time presented non-interference as an unwavering conviction, its interpretation can be more flexible. As a great power over Asian countries, China created the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to revise its relationship with Taiwan or Tibet. This could be seen as interference in national competences.
More recently, China changed its foreign policy line. The “Beijing consensus” is made more flexible in order to match its responsibilities. From the one hand resources’ interests and on the other hand establish a new empire. Therefore, on the occasion of the Arabic revolutions, if Peking stood against the military intervention in Syria in October, it would still urge on the Syrian regime to deliver on the promised reforms and respond to its people’s expectations. Fact:from Chinese perspective could be seen as a significant move towards interference in national affairs.
Even more important is the case of Libya. China abstained from voting at the UN Security Council on the use of the international force, which let the door open to intervention. Plus, China clearly decided to join and stepped into clear interference when the UN voted unanimously sanctions against Qaddafi. Then, Chinese representatives met the rebels in Qatar and in Benghazi, and the foreign minister of China has been talking with the rebels of the National Transitional Council (NTC). The reason for this turnaround? China can’t take the risk to damage its relations with a country counting 75 companies (many in the oil sector), with which also signed up contracts up to 18 billion.
In the end, Beijing foreign policy and its interpretation of international public law sometimes seem ambiguous, but one could say that it is due to the fact that it is purely led by the rational choice logic.