On June 28 Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China, held a speech at a conference in Beijing marking the 60th anniversary of initiation of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. The President of Myanmar and the Vice President of India as well as delegates from the three countries took part in the meeting. The Five Principles were first put forward in 1954, when China and India reached an agreement to ease tensions between the two states. In his speech Xi Jinping reaffirmed the importance of the Five Principles in regulating international relations. He argued that sovereignty, peaceful coexistence, and dialogue should be the only accepted basic principles for regulating international relations.
The Contradictions of Xi Jinping’s "Peaceful Coexistence" Ideology
Xi based his speech on three premises: 1) sovereignty is the fundamental precondition of a state’s existence and freedom; 2) disputes should be resolved by peaceful means; 3) China is by definition a peaceful nation and its international role is that of a peacemaker.
I shall argue that the PRC’s attitude has been marked by a clear inconsistency between the theoretical principles espoused by the official propaganda and the reality of China’s history and foreign policy. Let us examine these three points:
1) Xi Jinping said: “Sovereignty is the most important feature of any independent state as well as the embodiment and safeguard of its national interests. No infringement upon the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a country is allowed. Countries should respect each other’s core interests and key concerns. These are fundamental rules which should not be cast aside or undermined at any time.”
In 2003 China condemned the US’ war in Iraq. But when in March 2014 Russia violated Ukrainian sovereignty and annexed Crimea, Beijing did not voice any strong opposition. In fact, China was Russia’s biggest de facto ally during the Crimean crisis. On the day Russia officially annexed Crimea Vladimir Putin said he was “grateful to the people of China, whose leaders have always, when considering the situation in Ukraine and Crimea, taken into account the full historical and political context“.
Moreover, the issue of sovereignty is in itself problematic. The Republic of China on Taiwan claims to be a sovereign state. But Beijing refuses to accept this claim and insists that Taiwan is an integral part of the PRC. Therefore, it is enough to deny the existence of sovereignty in order to justify military aggression.
2) Xi Jinping said: “Disputes and differences between countries should be resolved through dialogue, consultation and peaceful means. We should increase mutual trust, and settle disputes and promote security through dialogue. Willful threat or use of force should be rejected. Flexing military muscles only reveals the lack of moral ground or vision rather than reflecting one’s strength.“
How does China behave in practice in relation with these issues?
China has numerous territorial disputes with its neighbours, for example it claims parts of the South China Sea, Taiwan, and the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. It has been pointed out that China has been willing to compromise on many issues. This is certainly true to a certain extent, given the fact that China hasn’t engaged in major military conflicts over the past two decades (while various Western countries have sent their armies abroad several times after 1989).
However, throughout its recent history China too has made use of its military might to pursue its goals. In 1988, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Vietnamese Navy collided near the Johnson South Reef. The PLAN repelled the Vietnamese vessels, killing several men. Though China’s naval presence on the Johnson South Reef had been allowed by the UN, China soon established control over several other disputed reefs after its victory over the Vietnamese navy.
In 1995 the Philippines discovered that China had built “platforms consisting of octagonal bunker-type structures” on the Mischief Reef, “a partly submerged feature in the Spratly Islands lying only 135 nautical miles west of the Philippine province of Palawan” (Aileen San Pablo-Baviera: Perceptions of a China Threat: A Philippine Perspective. In: The China Threat: Perceptions, Myths and Reality, ed. Herbert Yee and Ian Storey, 2002, p. 252).
In 2005 the PRC promulgated the controversial Anti-Secession Law that legalises the use of force against Taiwan should the latter declare formal independence and deviate from the one-China principle.
The trick of expansionist governments and groups is obvious. It is the so-called “map diplomacy“: governments draw maps that include disputed territory, collect as much “historical evidence” as possible to prove that an area belongs to a country, and then claim that this territory has been stolen, or has been severed from the motherland illegally or through foreign intervention.
I must point out that criticising China’s or other countries’ foreign policy does not equal endorsement of the US or other Western states (I criticised Western foreign policy in an older post about a possible intervention in Syria).
3) Xi Jinping said: “We Chinese believe that ‘no one should do to others what he does not want others to do to himself’. China does not subscribe to the notion that a country is bound to seek hegemony when it grows in strength. Hegemony or militarism is simply not in the genes of the Chinese.“
This is what we may call the “genetic” explanation for the alleged peaceful nature of the Chinese people. But if you look at a map of China during the Ming Dynasty, you will easily notice that it was much smaller than present-day China. That’s because towards the end of the Ming Dynasty and throughout the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese Empire annexed Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet.
People may say that the Manchus who ruled China and expanded its borders were not Chinese, but foreigners. However, after the overthrow of the Manchus and the foundation of the Republic of China, Chinese nationalists insisted that China should comprise the whole territory of the Manchu Empire. As Peter Perdue puts it: “Even though nationalists rejected the Manchus as an obstacle to China’s modernization, the Chinese nation-state derived its concept of its ideal boundaries from the maximal expansion of the Qing empire in the eighteenth century. Like other nationalists, the Chinese built on the past they rejected” (Peter C. Perdue: China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, 2005, p. 4).
Moreover, the actual colonisation policies of the Chinese settlers on Taiwan (despite not being systematically pursued by the central government but only carried out by the settlers themselves) were not entirely different from what Western settlers did in many parts of the world. Peng Mingmin, a Taiwanese politician, has explained this point bluntly and, apparently, without giving much thought to it, in his autobiography, stating that in Taiwan “there was new land available for anyone bold enough to drive back the aborigines and clear the land of trees and scrub.” (Peng Mingmin: A Taste of Freedom, Chapter I). The aborigines are mentioned along with “trees and scrubs” as an obstacle to the Chinese colonisers who came to Taiwan from the 17th to the 19th century. This sentence is pretty much everything Peng says about the aborigines in his entire book, although they were Taiwan’s native inhabitants.
Moreover, even in more recent times China has engaged in various military operations outside its borders.
On October 19, 1950, troops of the Chinese People’s Volunteers crossed the Yalu River and marched into North Korean; it was the first stage of China’s intervention in the Korean War. On February 17, 1979, the PLA launched a ferocious assault against Vietnam that lasted for a month (Andrew Scobell: China’s Use of Military Force: Beyond the Great Wall and the Long March, 2003, pp. 80, 119).
Other examples have been mentioned above.
The crimes committed by Western nations and Japan during the age of colonialism and beyond have given the leadership of the PRC a rhetorical weapon that it seeks to deploy to its own advantage. The myth of an inherently peaceful China surrounded by evil foreign powers is propagated to justify China’s foreign policy and even the use of force or the threat thereof. This rhetoric is effective because the memory of past humiliations is not only alive in the minds of the common people, but it is purposely reignited by the CCP government. Moreover, the disastrous foreign policy of Western states after 1989 and their hegemonic attitude have legitimised the CCP’s position.