The Debate

Does China Really Respect Sovereignty?

Both Washington and Beijing claim to champion sovereignty – they just have different ideas of what that looks like.

By Jacob Stokes for
Does China Really Respect Sovereignty?
Credit: Flickr/ Nathan Hughes Hamilton

The Trump administration has made protecting sovereignty — the idea that states have exclusive right to govern within their own territory — a central principle of both its foreign policy generally and U.S.-China relations specifically. As Vice President Mike Pence said in his October 2018 speech articulating a more competitive approach toward Beijing, “We seek a relationship grounded in fairness, reciprocity, and respect for sovereignty.” Trump issued a warning in his speech to the UN General Assembly, saying “responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty… from other, new forms of coercion and domination.”

U.S. efforts to elevate sovereignty to an organizing principle will generate mixed feelings for China. On one hand, leaders in Beijing hear echoes of their own loud calls to prioritize sovereignty over other concerns, especially human rights, and protect Communist Party rule in the process. On the other hand, as Pence’s speech made clear, China is and will likely remain the locus of concerns that rising powers are threatening the international order by violating the sovereignty of other countries.

Whether Washington and Beijing can shape a shared understanding of sovereignty — not just a conceptual definition but an actual constraint on behavior — that can also be accepted by a majority of the world’s states will play a major role in determining the future of U.S.-China competition. Assessing how Beijing thinks about the concept and whether Chinese behavior comports with those notions is the first step.

Sovereignty Is Jealously Guarded at Home…

China’s prioritization of sovereignty is a relatively recent phenomenon. As late as the Qing dynasty (which lasted until 1912), China enjoyed suzerainty over a loose empire of vassal states that paid tribute to the Middle Kingdom. The very notion of sovereignty was foreign and did not gain prominence in China until the European colonial period. (Europe itself established a regional order based on sovereignty at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.) In its fight for independence, especially following the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, China wielded the concept of sovereignty against outside powers and made it the cornerstone of its relations with the rest of the world.

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The foundational doctrine of Chinese foreign policy is a set of guidelines called the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru proclaimed in April 1954. First among those principles is “mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.” Throughout the history of the People’s Republic, safeguarding sovereignty has equated to protecting the Communist regime. For instance, Beijing justified the 1989 massacre of protesters gathered in Tiananmen Square as its sovereign right. As Deng Xiaoping told his fellow Politburo members two days before the crackdown, “Some Western countries use things like ‘human rights,’ or like saying the socialist system is irrational or illegal, to criticize us, but what they’re really after is our sovereignty.” More recently, Beijing has cited sovereign rights to counter criticism of its internment of an estimated one million Uyghurs.

China similarly levied a sovereignty-focused critique of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy, opposing democracy promotion and all but the narrowest forms of humanitarian intervention. China’s emphasis on sovereignty extends to the cyber domain, where Beijing’s official strategy for cooperation in cyberspace calls for “international cyberspace order on the basis of state sovereignty.” Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has steered China on a more assertive course, reaffirmed in a 2014 speech marking the 60th anniversary of the Five Principles that “[s]overeignty is the most important feature of any independent state as well as the embodiment and safeguard of its national interests.”

Beijing also makes expansive — and, in certain cases, revisionist — territorial claims under the banner of protecting its sovereignty. These include the special case of Taiwan, as well as maritime claims in the East and South China Seas and along its border with India. China is hardly the only state in the world with overlapping territorial claims. But Beijing’s purposeful definition of sovereignty to include territories it does not currently administer constitutes a unique challenge to the internationally understood definition.

… But Loosely Interpreted Abroad

There is no doubt that China values sovereignty for itself. But Beijing’s activities around the world evince a much looser definition for what constitutes a violation of sovereignty — and sometimes outright dismissal of the notion — when it comes to other countries.

Beijing increasingly seeks to influence ethnic Chinese living in other countries as an interest group to sway local and national politics overseas. Projects in the Belt and Road Initiative have resulted in countries turning over control of key national assets to China, most notably Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port. Similar worries loom over projects in Kenya, Cambodia, Myanmar, and beyond.

Chinese intelligence and law enforcement agencies have occasionally taken matters into their own hands in ways that appear to violate other countries’ sovereignty. In May 2017, China sent officials from its Ministry of State Security to question fugitive businessman Guo Wenghui in his Manhattan apartment, in violation of their visas. In addition, China has engaged in a campaign of kidnappings around the world to bring back to China people whom Beijing sees as threatening. Some of the abducted are Chinese citizens, but others are not.

More broadly, China uses organizations including its United Front Work Department to carry out influence activities that range from what is essentially nontransparent political organizing to outright espionage on behalf of Beijing’s policy goals. Those activities take place around the world, including in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and several European countries. As a landmark Hoover Institution report by leading American China scholars found, Chinese tactics “involve the use of coercive or corrupting methods to pressure individuals and groups and thereby interfere in the functioning of American civil and political life.” Those actions include activities in U.S. states and territories.

In the information space, while China exercises draconian control over its domestic media environment, Beijing is spending billions to expand its state-run media presence in foreign markets as part of global campaign to, as Xi has said, to “tell China stories well.” In this context, “telling China stories well” of course means being in line with Communist Party narratives. Tellingly, while Twitter is blocked in China, the editor of the hawkish Global Times wages an abrasive campaign to influence global China policy debates via the platform. While open societies rightfully welcome a sincere exchange of views, most of this media content is transparent propaganda.

Chinese actions in the economic arena similarly appear to infringe on the sovereign rights of other states. While Beijing criticizes U.S. sanctions enforcement as “long-arm jurisdiction” of American laws, China has on multiple occasions used economic coercion to advance its policy goals, including against Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Norway. The Chinese campaign to pressure airlines and other businesses to refer to Taiwan using its preferred terminology or lose access to the Chinese market constitutes an attempt to impose Chinese law globally.

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Sovereign Futures

In the 1990s and 2000s, the global debate around sovereignty centered on intervention in weak or failing states. Today, a more central question is: What types of behaviors are acceptable between great powers, or between powerful and less powerful states, when it comes to respecting sovereignty? Are those behaviors permissible based on accepted universal norms, or are they reliant on reciprocity between individual states? Do extra rights accrue to more powerful states? Western officials and analysts often talk about upholding a rules-based international order. Judging by Chinese rhetoric, protecting sovereignty should be a rule Beijing can support. But will that be the case in practice? Only Chinese actions can say for sure.

To be sure, the United States’ record on respecting the sovereignty of foreign countries is hardly perfect. Also, many if not most of China’s interactions with other countries constitute legitimate and even beneficial engagement.

Still, stable great power relations require at least a basic consensus on the rules of international conduct — especially as they relate the foundational principle of sovereignty. Forging a sustainable 21st century global order will require the United States and China, in conjunction with the rest of the world, to define and then enforce the parameters of sovereignty. Global rules and norms have always accounted for the occasional prerogatives of power politics; a degree of resilience to double standards or outright hypocrisy is built in. But Beijing should understand that exhortations to protect sovereignty at home will increasingly ring hollow if China’s actions abroad show little regard for the sovereignty of other states.

Sovereignty was created as a means of easing and bounding great power competition. Jettisoning the principle in favor of no-holds-barred contest for power is a recipe for instability. China, like any other country, cannot have it both ways.

Jacob Stokes is a senior policy analyst in the China program at the United States Institute of Peace. He previously served on the national security staff for Vice President Joe Biden and as a professional staff member for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.