The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence have underpinned Chinese diplomacy for more than 50 years. And, although originally conceived with India and Burma in mind, they have allowed Beijing to actively and continuously engage some of the most suspect regimes under the politically laudable but morally dubious guise of a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy that can see an ally commit what many describe as genocide even as Chinese companies explore oil fields only a few miles away.
The Five Principles send a message to potential allies and enemies alike: this is how we do business; this is how we expect you to do your business with us. It serves to reassure potential friends of non-hostile intentions by letting them know that their sovereignty and territory will be respected, and that China expects precisely the same in return.
Which is why it was so surprising to observers when the Chinese government announced that it would receive envoys from the anti-government rebels currently fighting in Libya. China has traditionally only engaged with the legitimately recognized government of other states on political issues, so why the sudden change?
Interventionists like to see this as a vindication and a strong indicator that the balance of power is shifting in the Libyan conflict. China, in holding talks with the rebels, is practically acknowledging the inevitability of the downfall of the Gaddafi regime. This engagement is a sign that Beijing wishes to ensure they are backing the right horse. For the powers of NATO, China's volte-face is proof that their strategy is working.
But does China really know which way the wind is blowing? More importantly, why do they care? After all, the Five Principles counsel non-involvement in other's affairs and a change now would set a dangerous precedent for future diplomatic engagement. At the very least, China will no longer be able to claim the moral high ground when the Dalai Lama visits Washington, and would only have limited cause for complaint when ‘anti-harmony elements’ such as Liu Xiaobo are recognized for their contribution to dissent in the Middle Kingdom. After all, speaking directly with a force that’s openly challenging the rule of the acknowledged government is tantamount to legitimizing the rebel's cause.
And this is something that Beijing can’t afford if it is to keep its reputation as a non-interventionist power intact. The Communist Party will be well aware of the fact that two of its most significant allies, Iran and Burma, are both international pariahs that face constant challenges to their authority from within. Were China to change tack and take a more humanitarian stance, it would fundamentally threaten the supplies of Iranian oil (approximately 15 percent of China's annual imports) and the gas pipeline through Burma that feeds them so much of their energy. On the other hand, both powers lack other allies with the same economic clout, and are acutely aware of the necessity of keeping Beijing happy, regardless of a change in philosophy.