With hostility between the United States and the People’s Republic of China at an all time high, one must often ask how we got here? How did China ever reach a point that it could begin to even be considered a competitor of the United States? It’s an interesting and multifaceted question, however one thing that is often not examined when trying to answer this question is the role that Chinese foreign policy has played. With a principle of peace dating back to 1954, China acts as a case study into how pacifism can create power on an international level.
China’s history of political neutrality dates back to the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1950. Despite being referred to as the “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet”, this conflict, which saw the death and capture of an estimated 3,341 Tibetans, was not truly peaceful. The later aftermath that followed due to China’s totalitarian domestic policy under Mao killed countless more. However, this is more of an outlier than the status quo from a foreign policy perspective. This is due in part to claims by both the Communist Party under Chairman Mao and the Kuomintang that Tibet was an integral part of China.
Although the invasion of Tibet was coercive in nature, the outcome of Tibet’s annexation led to a number of treaties being signed by the Chinese that would go on to promote peace in the region. This was due to still-lingering border disputes between China and India. One such treaty, the 1954 Sino-Indian Agreement, marks one of the turning points of Chinese diplomacy. In the preamble to the document lay what later became known as the Principles of Peaceful Co-existence. Developed by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, China and India essentially agreed to uphold a strong interpretation of the Westphalian Doctrine. These principles, mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and cooperation for mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence, would later even be added to the Chinese constitution.
In reference to these principles, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Premier Zhou issued a joint statement:
“In Asia and the rest of the world there still remain different political and social systems. If we follow the above-listed principles and act on their basis, then differences between countries need not necessarily become impediments to peace or become causes for conflict. If we guarantee the territorial integrity of each country and non-aggression against each other, then these countries can live in mutual peace and friendship. This will also help dispel the tensions that still remain in the world and further help in creating a peaceful atmosphere.”
Similar statements given in a later meeting between China and Burma, along with a mutual adoption of the principles show the dedication of Premier Zhou to the idea of peace, something that becomes more evident when examining his western rapprochement in the 70s.
In the following years, the principles would be adopted rather broadly, acting as the basis for China’s relations with a number of countries, including Afghanistan, Myanmar and Cambodia. Despite this, when the peace between India and China expired in 1962, border clashes would lead to war between the two nations. However, it is important to note this war only lasted a month and acts as one of the only two wars China has been directly involved in since the Korean War. The war also was the result of two attempted peace agreements that fell through between the two nations. This along with India setting up military outpost beyond the McMahon Line, which had been considered the Chinese zone of control following the 1954 agreement, led to conflict.
The second war fought by the Chinese, similarly, was quite brief. Lasting just over three weeks, the Sino-Vietnamese war came as a response to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978 and Vietnam’s close connections with China’s Soviet rival. Unlike the war with India however, China’s role in this conflict was far more aggressive in nature. China managed to quickly capture three cities in North Vietnam, declaring that the gates to Hanoi had been opened. Since this was their original intention, they left. In essence, the Chinese had proven that the Soviets would not come to defend their Vietnamese ally, sending a strong message to the Vietnamese government. However, the end of the war did not mark the end of conflict with Vietnam as Chinese and Vietnamese tensions continued to boil in a number of border skirmishes until Vietnam finally agreed to withdraw from Cambodia in 1989.
While these two wars were brief, that does not change the coercive nature of military affairs. However, it should be noted that in both situations, the Chinese had set goals and once accomplished, they withdrew from conflict. For many Americans, an approach to war from a Chinese perspective would be a welcomed improvement. Even with continued border disputes with India, leading to hundreds to be killed, China continues to maintain a peaceful position that it is unlikely to believe the United States would hold if similar actions were taken against it. Since 1953, there have been more wars that the average American didn’t even know our nation had involvement in than actual open conflicts that the Chinese have participated in.
This isn’t to say that the Chinese are angels. As pointed out before, any conflict should be avoided if it can be and entire books have been written on the atrocities committed by the Chinese regime in the past and present. However, from a strictly pragmatic perspective, China has used a lack of coercion to make itself seem like a neutral party to much of the international community. To prove this point, just look at China’s new role in the Middle East. China’s recent peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular highlights this point. For years, America held that the only way to handle tensions with Iran was with an overthrowal of their government. China, on the other hand, realized that if peace as opposed to control was the goal, you’d end up with much of both due to mutual trust.
But this is not just limited to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Relations between China and the recent Taliban government have led many to believe that China will play a pivotal role in the nation’s next steps. Recent relief provided to Afghanistan by the Chinese following a recent earthquake alongside increased Chinese interest in incorporating Afghanistan into the Belt and Road Initiative shows that China will play an important role in the future of the Taliban and Afghanistan as a whole. As China is currently one of the few nations even willing to speak to the Taliban, with both nations having mutual embassies with each other, and the United States using a 20 year long war to essentially destroy any possibility of cooperation between us and our former puppet, common sense seems to point towards a China-aligned Afghanistan.
This has continued to be the case in the Ukraine affair as well. As discussions over whether or not China can act as a neutral arbiter in a peace agreement, it only becomes clearer by the day that the United States cannot fill this role. Continued open support of Ukraine by the United States has made it so any sort of peace agreement seems unlikely, which is to be expected in what seemed to be America’s new forever war before deciding to move on from the conflict to the new best thing, the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
This conflict too seems one that the Chinese are more than willing to stay out of, at least in terms of direct military action, although China does tend to lean more alongside the Arab world in its neutrality. In the summary of the call between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the Saudi Foreign Minister, Wang clarified the Chinese view.
“All parties should not take any action to escalate the situation and should return to the negotiating table as soon as possible. China is communicating intensively with all parties to promote a ceasefire and an end to the war. The top priority is to make every effort to ensure the safety of civilians, open humanitarian relief channels as soon as possible, and safeguard the basic needs of the people of Gaza. China believes that the historical injustice against Palestine has lasted for more than half a century and cannot continue. All peace-loving and justice-loving countries should speak out and clearly demand the implementation of the “two-state solution” as soon as possible.”
Despite Israel calling on China to directly back them in the fight against Hamas, China continues to stay mostly neutral with there being little interest within China to have must to do with the conflict.
In conclusion, what can be observed by the Chinese is a fascinating method of increasing its position on the international stage by holding a long-term policy of avoiding conflicts and attempting to uphold national boundaries. This of course does not make up for the many authoritarian crimes inflicted by the Chinese people by their government or legitimize the Chinese government to make them look as if they are some sort of saint. Instead, what can instead be observed is that a simple lesson can be learned from China, that being the idea that peace and nonintervention is good for foreign policy. As BRICS continues to grow on a global scale, it is no wonder why. Many communities around the world have been subjected to America’s cultural and political imperialism in the post Soviet world and the Chinese seem to be providing an outlet for many within that sphere. Despite this, it is hard to overstate how China’s new relations could end up being abused in the long term if the nation follows a similar course to the US. Instead, Americans can learn from our own roots and the roots of our newly dubbed adversary to steer away from the drummings of war that continue to rumble in our nation.
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