Principles of China's Foreign Policy

Long-standing principles of Chinese foreign policy are expressed in the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. The Chinese leadership originally enumerated these principles in 1954 when China, with a communist government, was trying to reach out to the non-communist countries of Asia to assure them that China would not interfere in their internal affairs.

Despite changes in the international environment and China's policies, the Five Principles have continued to serve a useful purpose. They offer an alternative to the American conception of world order - one in which international regimes and institutions, often reflecting U.S. interests and values, limit the rights of sovereign states to develop and sell weapons of mass destruction, repress opposition and violate human rights, pursue mercantilist economic policies that interfere with free trade, and damage the environment. China's alternative design for the world stresses the equal, uninfringeable sovereignty of all states large and small, Western and non-Western, rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian, each to run its own system as it sees fit, whether its methods suit Western standards or not. Another Chinese term for such a system is "multipolarity." The Five Principles explain why America should not be able to impose its values on weaker nations. Thus the core idea behind the Five Principles as interpreted by China today is sovereignty - that one state has no right to interfere in the internal affairs of another state.

A recent expression of this idea is the concept of "building a community of shared future for mankind" articulated by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. This idea means that all countries have equal sovereignty - none can intervene in the internal affairs of others; that countries should jointly manage global affairs democratically, rather than through the dictates of the most powerful states; that countries should engage in "win-win cooperation" to "build a world of common prosperity"; and that countries should treat the diversity of civilizations not as "a source of global conflict [but as] an engine driving the advance of human civilizations." As in the past, the Chinese proposal is intended to contrast with what China portrays as the coercive and self-interested foreign policy pursued by the United States.

Although China has become an advanced and wealthy country - although only middle-income on a per capital basis - it still considers itself a Third World country that sides with the developing world and does not align itself with any major power. Chinese spokesmen say that their country seeks peace so that it can concentrate on development.

Chinese officials' position on most disputes around the world is that they should be solved by peaceful negotiations. This has been their view on the war in Afghanistan, the struggle between Israel and the Arabs, the rivalry between North and South Korea, and ethnic conflicts in Eastern Europe and Africa. At the U.N., China often abstains or refrains from voting on resolutions that mandate sanctions or interventions to reverse invasions, end civil wars, or stop terrorism. As a permanent Security Council member China's negative vote would constitute a veto, angering countries who favor intervention. By not voting or casting an abstention, China has allowed several interventions to go ahead without reversing its commitment to non-intervention.

Of course, these articulated moral principles do not mean that Chinese foreign policy is purely idealistic. In most cases, the announced principles fit the needs of Chinese strategy. Especially in places relatively far from China, such as the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, a few simple principles reflect Chinese interests most of the time. To oppose great-power intervention and defend sovereignty and equality among states is not only high-minded but represents China's national interest in regions where China does not wish to intervene itself. The farther one gets from China's borders, the easier it is for China to match rhetoric with interests. Even when there are inconsistencies and tradeoffs in Chinese policy, the rhetoric is flexible enough to accommodate them.

The consultant for this unit is Andrew J. Nathan, professor of Chinese politicical science at Columbia University. The unit draws from Andrew J. Nathan and Robert S. Ross, The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress: China’s Search for Security (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997) and from Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell, China's Search for Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

Classroom Exercise

Locate a newspaper article on a current issue in foreign policy (e.g., U.N. peace keeping forces, international foreign trade discussions, or human rights issues) and investigate and report to the class China's position on the issue. Consider the following:

  • How does China's position on the issue relate to the principles on which China claims its foreign policy decisions will be based?
  • What are the implications of China's position for China itself?

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