How China’s foreign policy of non-intervention is all about selective action

Sherif A. Elgebeily says China has struck a shrewd balance in the selective use of its non-interference policy, balancing legitimate selective foreign intervention and soft power efforts with a rejection of reproach over domestic actions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 April, 2017, 8:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 April, 2017, 7:31pm

Since 1954, China has practised a foreign policy of non-interventionism, in accordance with its “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; mutual non-aggression; non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; equality and mutual benefit; and, peaceful coexistence.

More than 60 years later, China continues to point to this stance both to justify outward-facing actions, such as its voting record at the UN Security Council, and to reject foreign criticism of its own internal affairs.

In recent years, however, China has been making surreptitious moves that go against this longstanding policy, originally designed to reach a truce over Tibet in the mid-20th century. In doing so, China’s foreign policy ambitions seem to be taking a turn for the more hegemonic, while maintaining the convenience of the Five Principles as official policy.

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A key ground for Chinese intercession has traditionally been on its doorstep in North Korea, where China’s economic and other national interests are well-documented; China, of course, continues to play a leading role in mediating the current escalation of threats between North Korea and the US.

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As one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council – a body entrusted with the maintenance of international peace and security – China has been granted unprecedented power and responsibility to respond to threats to international peace – it can both mandate and block legal intervention.

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In stark contrast to the late 20th century, when its policy of non-intervention meant China found itself on the wrong side of history – notably in abstaining on intervention in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia – peacekeeping is where China has chosen to invest in recent years.

Since 2004, China’s human peacekeeping contributions have roughly quadrupled in size

Pumping in over 10 per cent of the entire budget, China is now the second-largest provider of financial contributions to UN peacekeeping operations. Moreover, unlike the top spender – the United States – China contributes personnel as well as money.

Since 2004, China’s human peacekeeping contributions have roughly quadrupled in size, to 2,567 personnel, far more than all four other permanent Security Council members put together.

Without doubt, this uptick in peacekeeping has been accompanied by China’s recent focus on the creation and consolidation of soft power – the ability to influence through economic and cultural means – in Ghana, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, Niger, Senegal, Uganda, and other African nations.

In gunboat diplomacy, too, China appears to be expanding its reach. Unlike fellow Security Council permanent members Russia and the US – both of which have military bases either in or close to Syria, and significant allies in the region in Iran and Israel, respectively – China has no major strategic interests in the Middle East and Africa as yet.

The construction of the first overseas Chinese military base on a 90-acre plot in Djibouti may change this, as will the fact that the Chinese state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation is the largest oil investor in war-torn South Sudan, where the majority of its peacekeepers are stationed.

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Yet this is not to say that the Five Principles no longer have any use – China vetoed a Security Council resolution in 2007 on the grounds that the problems it faced were domestic in nature. Most recently, on Syria, where evidence has been presented of extrajudicial killings, indiscriminate chemical attacks, large-scale forced migration, and deliberate attacks on civilian and other protected targets under the Geneva Conventions, China has blocked UN Security Council action or even condemnation of the Assad regime on six occasions since the outbreak of civil war in 2011.

In this sense, China appears to have struck a most convenient – and shrewd – balance of selective legitimate foreign intervention and soft power efforts, while at the same time maintaining the capacity to both veto Security Council resolutions as it sees fit and shake off any reproach of its domestic policies and strategies.

Dr Sherif A. Elgebeily is director of the Centre for the Study of International Peace and Security in London