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Foreign Policy

A Few Principles to Guide Sino-U.S. Relations

May 14 , 2015
  • Yu Sui

    Professor, China Center for Contemporary World Studies

Since the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, successive generations of Chinese leaders have maintained a series of foreign policy principles, the basis of which are the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence proclaimed in 1954. Some of these diplomatic principles, developed and enriched in the era of reform and opening, can serve as useful references for China’s ongoing effort to build “a new model of major-country relations” with the United States.

1) The principle of national interests. This principle is followed in all countries, but the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping gave it new meaning. When meeting with President Richard Nixon in October 1989, he said that, “in determining relations between two countries, each party should proceed from his country’s strategic interests … and at the same time respect the interests of the other.”

Chinese leaders have made the point that just as China cannot develop in isolation, the world also needs China to continue its growth. They have also argued that China ought to make a greater contribution to global humanity.

In other words, Chinese leaders believe – rightly, given the reality of the 21st century – that for countries, friendship can be as long lasting as national interests. This stands in stark contrast with the oft-quoted Western view that “nations have no permanent friends, they only have permanent interests”.

2) The principle of promoting world peace and common development. This is the logical choice of a socialist country dedicated to peaceful development. Peace is the essential prerequisite for development, while development is the key ingredient of peace. China’s recent proposal about building a modern, overland and maritime Silk Road aims to advance both.

To make peace and development a reality all over the world, countries must adopt a “new security concept” underpinned by mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination. As Chinese President Xi Jinping has stated, security is not a zero-sum game and no country can expect to have absolute security immune from regional or global events. This is an admonition that all must take to heart.

3) The principle of equality, mutual trust and win-win cooperation. These key words derive from the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. While equality is the precondition – and mutual trust the foundation – of good relations, cooperation is the surest way to achieve win-win results. President Xi has pointed out that in the new era, the spirit of the Five Principles, instead of being outdated, remains as relevant as ever; their significance, rather than diminishing, remains as important as ever; and their role, rather than being weakened, will continue to expand. In the meantime, China has stated that its relations with its neighbors will be guided by the principles of “amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness.” Emanating from the Five Principles, these watchwords provide useful insights into how China envisions relations with its neighbors – and by extension, the United States.

4) The principle of avoiding alliance, confrontation or targeting third countries. Deng Xiaoping often spoke on this subject. He said, “China’s foreign policy is independent and truly non-aligned.” Xi Jinping inherited Deng’s mantle when he assured other BRICS leaders in July 2014 that Beijing’s foreign policy is based on principles, values friendship, and upholds justice. We hope that other major countries will join China in taking the road of peaceful development, by avoiding conflict and confrontation, showing mutual respect, and pursuing win-win cooperation.

To date, China has built partnerships with more than 70 countries. Partnership rather than alliance: this represents a new thinking in post-Cold War international relations.

5) The principle of diversity, accommodation and mutual learning. Chinese leaders have always called for the respect of the diversity of the world. President Xi has observed that civilizations become rich and colorful through exchange and mutual learning. Inter-civilizational exchange is what drives human progress, world peace and development. Moreover, Chinese leaders have also championed each country’s right to choose a social system, development strategy and way of life suited to their own national conditions. President Xi placed special emphasis on this, saying that just as a person must choose shoes that suit their feet, a country must choose a system that suits its particular situation.

It must be noted that “accommodation and mutual learning” are a step further than “seeking commonality and reserving (resolving) differences.” In this view, one should not just reserve (resolve) differences, but actively learn from them for his own benefit.

6) The principle of adopting a non-ideological approach to inter-state relations. In the same 1989 meeting with Richard Nixon, Deng Xiaoping opined that, “Each country, whether it is big or small, strong or weak, should respect others as equals, giving no thought to old scores or to differences in social system and ideology. In this way, all problems can be solved.”

President Xi has talked about China-US relations in a similar vein: “As long as China and the United States uphold mutual respect, seek common ground while resolving differences, be firm in our determination, and remain unperturbed by individual incidents or comments, we will be able to keep the overall relations on a firm footing despite the ups and downs that may come our way.”

On the other hand, the world has seen enough examples of instigating “color revolutions” in other countries. So, avoiding an ideological approach must not be construed as meaning losing sight of ideological struggles.

7) The principle of opposing hegemony. Deng Xiaoping listed “opposing hegemony” and “belonging to the Third World” as key tenets of China’s foreign policy. In March 2014, President Xi also emphasized China’s opposition to hegemony and aversion to seeking hegemony: “Such is our guiding policy which is consistent with China’s political system. And it is a policy we follow faithfully in practice.”

Of course, China does not link hegemony with any particular country. In the words of Deng Xiaoping: “We are against any country that practices hegemony. We are against any country that commits aggression against others.”

8) The principle of the centrality of the United Nations. Put simply, we must firmly uphold the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, continue to leverage the UN and its Security Council’s active role in handling international affairs and promoting world peace, and ensure that all UN Member States can participate in international affairs as equals. The Security Council shoulders primary responsibility for promoting international peace and security and sits at the heart of the collective security mechanism. The UN membership would never condone or accept the practice of bypassing the Security Council and going one’s own way in vital matters that concern international peace and security. This is also a red line for China.

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