Interview with Sophie Richardson, author of China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence

Sophie RichardsonThe following is an interview with Sophie Richardson, author of China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence

Question: What are the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence? Are they really still relevant to China’s leaders, especially given that the era of highly ideological politics in that country seem to be a thing of the past?

Sophie Richardson: The Five Principles include mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, nonaggression, noninterference in others’ internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. In brief, these translate into the following policy guidelines: that another country’s regime type, level of development, or location has little bearing on how the Chinese government conducts its diplomatic relations; that while China won’t relinquish its claim to certain territories, such as Tibet or Taiwan, it is extremely unlikely to attack other countries; that neither do foreigners have the right to get involved in Chinese politics nor do Chinese officials have the right to get involved in others’ politics; and that unconditional trade and aid are key diplomatic tools. The ideas were developed over the course of the 1940s and refined as the Chinese Communist Party took power, a reflection of those leaders’ perceptions of how China had been treated by—and therefore itself ought to treat—other countries.

Although one doesn’t hear the phrase “Five Principles” as frequently these days, the principles clearly continue to set the boundaries for Chinese policy, ranging from vast sums of unconditional aid to resistance to international institutions such as the International Criminal Court to a near-hysterical reaction to the Dalai Lama’s meetings with world leaders. I think the beliefs that contributed to the development of the principles still hold—the sense of “victimhood,” a need to attend to priorities at home, a wariness about other countries’ intentions—though rising nationalism may force the Chinese Communist Party to take a more visible, aggressive stance.

Q: Knowing what we do about the magnitude of the Chinese government’s diplomatic and financial activities, particularly in the developing world, how can Beijing claim to be practicing “noninterference”?

S.R.: It’s important to understand that the idea of “noninterference” is actually primarily defensive, not offensive, and the Five Principles rhetoric you’re most likely to hear is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterating that some other country has “no right” to criticize China. Conversely, Chinese diplomats generally stay out of the politics of other countries—not demonstrating support for a particular political party in the run-up to an election, not basing aid or trade deals on the other government undertaking reforms, not making decisions about the establishment or suspension of bilateral ties based on what kind of regime is in power. These criteria are all considered fairly normal by most Western powers in dictating their bilateral relations. To the extent that the Chinese government engages in what looks to us like interference, it’s typically motivated by a concern about Tibet or Taiwan, or a trade issue. Often behavior that appears incredibly callous, like following through on massive aid packages immediately after a bloody coup, as happened recently in Guinea, is consistent with “noninterference.”

Q: If you’re right about the Five Principles, what can we expect from Chinese foreign policy in the coming decade or so?

S.R.: I think a couple of trends will be most visible, particularly in the economic realm: enormous investment and aid that will benefit China and at least some economic interests, though not necessarily the population broadly, in other countries; minimal military aggression except as it pertains to Taiwan and possibly the South China Sea; and a greater interaction with, but still circumspection about, particular international organizations.

Q: Some scholars argue that China’s rise is pure aggression—a rapacious quest for natural resources, military and economic domination of Southeast Asia, pursuit of power at the UN Security Council—while others look more carefully at “soft power,” including the establishment of Chinese government-funded language programs all over the world. Where on this spectrum does your work lie?

S.R.: First, I think that if you look exclusively at aggressive or cooperative behavior you get a skewed view—it’s relatively rare that you get such consistency in states’ behavior, and to me the more interesting question is about the circumstances under which you get a particular kind of response. Second, while it’s absolutely true that there are ways Five Principles-based diplomacy directly contributed to some horrific outcomes—not least in keeping the Khmer Rouge regime alive such that it could slaughter innocent people—there are other ways they’ve dictated more positive results than what otherwise might be expected.

Q: Does this mean that leaders need not be concerned about the Chinese government’s growing global influence and its foreign policy practices?

S.R.: To the extent those leaders are concerned about trying to leverage their own power to promote change in other countries, particularly with respect to human rights or democratization, or about defending established norms in international institutions, they do need to be concerned. The Five Principles dictate resistance to some of the fundamental ideas upon which Western foreign policy is premised—that sovereignty can be set aside if a government’s behavior is unacceptable, that aid can come with demands for domestic change, that publicly debating or scrutinizing what goes on inside another country is an acceptable practice in international relations. It’s less a question of gaming out a Chinese military assault on Southeast Asia than it is of defending norms.

Q: Why the focus on Cambodia in examining the Five Principles?

S.R.: Because it is not intuitively obvious why Beijing should have bothered with Cambodia at all, let alone to the extent it has since the 1950s. The costs of China’s involvement indicate that Cambodia has somehow been particularly interesting to China and suggest that there are compelling reasons the foreign policy choices should have been different from what traditional schools of international relations theory would predict. This case captures many of the features highlighted in other analyses of Chinese foreign policy, such as the presence of great and small powers, varying regime types in Phnom Penh, considerable shifts in the international environment, an assumption of affinity between communist or authoritarian regimes—yet China’s behavior has been reasonably consistent. This level of detail matters in determining which factors—wealth, security, ideology, or principles—were the primary motivation for China’s policy choices. It shows what options were considered and rejected—a key element missing in most other analyses of foreign policy choices.

Q: Is this the definitive work on China’s relationship with the Khmer Rouge?

S.R.: That will be hard to produce until the Chinese government permits access to, among other things, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs archives and/or adopts something akin to the Freedom of Information Act. But the equally interesting issue is that a certain amount of damning information was already known and available, almost as much in Chinese sources as in English or French. And in fact my interest was less in documenting the details of every last aid shipment during that period as it was in why the Chinese government engaged in this relationship.

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