Features | Politics | East Asia

China’s Doctrine of Indifference

China’s willingness to meet with the rebels in Libya has some hoping for a shift in its foreign policy. They’re likely to be disappointed.

By Scott Hockley for

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.

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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.

So, is this the beginning of a new interventionist policy from Beijing? Arguably, this had already begun. Politically motivated donations have been a factor of China's chequebook diplomacy for at least a decade now. Tamara Renee Shie, in her excellent essay ‘Beijing's Island Fever,’ tells us, for example, that China has been giving support to pro-Chinese candidates in democratic elections in the Pacific Islands for years. ‘Gifts’ from State Owned Enterprises (SOE's) to poor African nations have taken forms as diverse as roads and hospitals and have curried much favour amongst the more questionably ‘legitimate’ despots of that continent.

The United Nations, theoretically the great International leveller but more often an impotent old guard dog, has also been used by China as a means to protect the sovereignty of her allies (or protect their Beijing-friendly regimes and Chinese assets, depending on your perspective). Sudan in particular has enjoyed a great deal of support from China: even in the midst of the worst of alleged genocides in Darfur, Beijing's representative made sure that any condemnation of Khartoum was so watered down as to be ineffective. Iran, meanwhile, has become something of a proxy by which to punish the United States by active engagement and tacit support under the aegis of the Five Principles.

However, none of this proves conclusively that there’s about to be a radical shift in Chinese non-interventionist policy, rather than that Chinese diplomacy is a doctrine of indifference. Allies may murder, rape, torture and repress, but as long as the oil is flowing, all is well.

But this may not be enough for the disgruntled masses in the Middle East. The Jasmine Revolution has brought a sea-change to the political landscape in the region, and while Washington’s interventionist policies may not garner much sympathy from the new civilian authorities, neither will the self-interested fence-sitting of the Chinese.

China neither vetoed nor voted in favour of UNSC Resolution 1973, an act which was widely seen as a spectacular demonstration of Beijing’s uncertainty regarding the outcome of Western-led action against the Gaddafi regime. The Chinese delegates made the right choice to perfectly serve their own interests, as did the Western powers: by not voting yes, China could claim to a victorious Libyan government that they were always fighting in their corner and lent no support to the anti-government movement. On the other side, by not vetoing the resolution, China could easily present a victorious rebel government with the fact that they gave tacit support to the rebels by not stopping its passage.

But with publics in the Arab World literally fighting for their lives against authoritarian regimes massacring dissidents in the streets, implied solidarity with the oppressed won’t satisfy the victims of these brutal crackdowns.

So, are we on the cusp of a dramatic shift in Chinese policy? China still looks likely to resort to its ‘core interests’ rhetoric to warn others off its ever-expanding primary goals, be they territory, the oceans or the reunification with troublesome Taiwan. And further afield, China will continue with its doctrine of indifference.

Scott Hockley is a Shanghai-based writer