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.

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