China's World view: Back to the past under a 'Pax Sinica?'

2012-10-15 13:08

The speech of Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi before the General Assembly of the United Nations on 27 September is quite remarkable.  That is to say if it were to be taken seriously rather than a flight of fancy.

The speech articulates China’s wish list of ‘fundamentals’ for reshaping the world. This world will have two dimensions: Firstly, a veritable global Utopia, a world of good neighbourliness, happiness, peace and tranquillity.  Secondly, a classical Westphalian world where national sovereignty and jurisdiction would be absolute and impenetrable, with no outside intervention whatever domestic policies are followed.

Mr Yang ’s  ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’ are:

‘We should promote equality and democracy in international relations;

‘We should seek win-win progress through cooperation in the course of development;

‘We should ensure fairness and effectiveness in conducting global governance;

‘We should pursue common progress by embracing diversity of civilization;

‘We should seek common security amid growing interdependence.’

On the basis of these principles, mr Yang said: ‘China will enhance friendly relations with all other countries… and strive to build a new type of relations between major countries based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation.’

These are without doubt commendable principles on which to build a better future world. But analyses of the strategic/tactical reasons behind it reveals a hidden agenda for Chinese dominance:

Firstly, China seeks to convince the world that there is nothing to fear about the predicted future Chinese global dominance, a pax Sinica. China will behave like a   good neighbour, a benevolent Leviathan; the world will be a better and safer place it is or was under American domination.

Secondly, China seeks a world system in which it could conduct its domestic policies absolutely immune and free from external interference or intervention. ‘All countries big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor are equal members of the international community. Respect for each other’s sovereignty, core interests and choice of social system and development path is a fundamental principle guiding state-to state relations…The internal affairs of a country should be handled by itself…China does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries or impose its will on others and China does not allow outside forces to interfere in its internal affairs’.

For South Africans who remember the time of apartheid, this would sound very familiar. This was exactly the language of National Party to protect the policy of apartheid from foreign intervention. Year after year SA Foreign ministers Eric Louw and Hilgard Muller tried ad nauseam to convince the United Nations to abide by Art. 2 par 7 of the Charter, proscribing intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. As we know, their efforts were all in vain. Sanctions were introduced, isolation followed, and apartheid was condemned as a crime against humanity, the government was forced by international public opinion to dump apartheid.

Confirming the double standards of world politics, China, in spite of its shameful human rights record, will not get the same type of treatment at the UN, simply because it is a major power, and not the easy soft target SA was.

Even so, China does not come off totally scot free. It is not immune to criticism of governments and civil societies and its human rights abuses regularly reported in the media. This is something profoundly detested by the Communist regime in Beijing. Its standard reaction is that human rights in China are a Chinese domestic matter and those who interfere violate its national sovereignty. In some cases it would use stringent economic leverage, trade sanctions and diplomatic black mail (as in the case of the Dalai Lama’s visa application to visit SA), to punish or discourage those who dare interfere.

So, what mr Yang’s doctrine amounts to is a two dimensional world existing separately, in total isolation from one another, the one not influencing the other.

In his utopian international system, all the good things will go together and China will operate like a model state abiding by the rules in international relations.

In the domestic domain, states must be allowed to follow their own policies, however uncivilised, odious and repugnant they might be. Nation states would bear no responsibility towards outsiders, being protected by the sovereign principle of non-interference.

How mr Yang’s system will work in practice in the modern interconnected word of today is a Chinese puzzle. On the one hand he proposes an ideal international environment based on progressive, democratic, liberal civilised norms. Globalisation, pursuit of common interests, democracy in international relations, cooperation, interdependence and common development will characterise this world.

On the other hand, this world will be made up by states that will enjoy absolute sovereign freedom to do domestically what they like with impunity.

Mr Yang seems to presuppose that all the people of his utopian world would think and behave like Chinese under the Communist Party.

But, of course, this will hardly happen. The information revolution, interdependence and globalisation (mr Yang talks about and indeed exist)have rendered the civilised world closely interlinked and ‘other oriented’, a lattice work of common interests. Above all, the welfare of the human race in this civilised world is of universal concern. Issues which could affect the human condition on this earth, like human rights, climate change and pandemics are universal and internationalised, not restricted by national sovereignty or state boundaries.

This is not to say that some form of cosmopolitanism should totally supersede the traditional sovereign nation state. Most state functions and responsibilities are domestic by nature and are likely to remain so for a long time to come. But as the poet said ‘no man is an island’, so it could also be said  ‘no state is an island’ when it concerns the human condition.

But China seems more concerned about its own security condition than the human condition. In this respect, mr Yang leaves the door open for intervention as the domestic and the international overlap. According to him, ‘to ensure one’s own security, a country should respect and accommodate the security of other countries’.

China, therefore, wants its own security to be accommodated by other countries. This renders its strict non-interference doctrine not applicable. Therefore, and obviously so, Chinese territorial aspirations, in the Pacific as well the Asian mainland, are ‘legitimate’ areas where it could interfere and play power politics.

So, in the final analysis, underlying the Chinese foreign minister’s thesis, is the notion that the world will be a good place as long as everybody behaves according to Chinese rules of international interaction. This sounds ominously like a putative Pax Sinica.

Although far from perfect, the Pax Romana had Roman law and the Pax Americana democracy and freedom as moral lode stars. A Pax Sinica seems void of any normative notion, barring securing the necessary conditions for the continued hegemony of the Chinese Communist Party. What it needs to do for a better and safer world is bring its repressive domestic policies in line with international humanitarian standards.


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