Sixty years on, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, jointly initiated by China, India and Myanmar in 1954, are still full of vitality. The vigor is deeply rooted in their profound nature, special historical background, and reflection of the essence of human progress.
The initiation of the Five Principles was the best manifestation of the strong aspirations of the newly independent countries, post-WWII, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty.
The Five Principles incorporated the wisdom of these newly independent countries in seeking to resist outside aggression with their soft power. This reflected the great motivation for peace and development, which are now seen as the themes of the era. The Five Principles also demonstrated the sense of responsibility of the political elites from China, India and Myanmar towards human history and the unique progressive role they played in the political arena of the world.
The profound nature of the Five Principles can be captured in two main aspects – theory and practice. The theoretical significance, however, rests particularly with the Principles’ rich scientific connotations.
The Five Principles generalize the most basic principles of international laws (the code of conduct for international relations), and reflect the essential characteristics of the new type of international relations.
Some principles often quoted in contemporary international relations could, in essence, be found in and reflected by the Five Principles framework, such as the peoples of all countries have the right to choose their own values, social system and development road; settling political disputes through peaceful means; not resorting to force or threat by force; advocating for a complete disarmament, particularly nuclear disarmament by nuclear powers; and making joint efforts to address such global issues as peace, development, ecology, population, resources and climate, etc.
The Five Principles are of long-term universal significance, with undisputable connotations, and even those who actually attempt to destroy the Five Principles would also have to acknowledge them, at least verbally.
There are three main points that one must understand in order to understand the Five Principles fully. First is the practicability. They are not simply empty slogans, instead, they target against hegemony, power politics, expansionism, old and neo-colonism and terrorism, which are opposed by the majority of countries and the peoples. Second is the nature for universal applications. The Five Principles not only apply to countries with different social systems, but also to countries with similar or identical social systems. And the third is the mobilizing role. Of all principles in addressing problems in international relations in the contemporary world, the concise and brief Five Principles are the most influential, which are widely echoed and accepted across the world.
The Five Principles continue to be further deepened and developed in the new era, because they conform to the trends of history. The world needs peace, countries want independence, nations need rejuvenation, society calls for progress, the economy needs to be developed, and living standards need improvement. All these are the irresistible trends. The Five Principles emphasize the principle of state interests. Amid the economic globalization, inter-dependence among the countries is growing, and the Five Principles could not only help safeguard the interests of a particular country, but also give due respect to the state interests of other countries. And The Five Principles constitute important prerequisites for the positive interaction in country-to-country relations, that is, win-win or all-win interactions.
The practical significance of the Five Principles is also manifested by a series of specific inferences or assertions that have derived from the Five Principles and conform to the development and change of the time and help safeguard peace and development. This includes world diversity theory, the democratization of international relations, the new security concept, and the advocacy for the construction of a new international order.
But, on the other hand, proponents of power politics, who are opponents of the Five Principles, also coined many new phrases and played new tricks, which, in essence, aim at challenging the Five Principles. For example, to challenge the sovereignty principle with the “limited sovereignty theory” or the “doctrine of human rights above sovereignty”, to challenge the principle of non-interference in internal affairs with the “justified aggression theory”, to challenge the principles of mutual respect and mutual non-aggression with the “preemptive strike theory”, to challenge the sovereign equality principle and the role of the United Nations with unilateralism and “single-polar world theory”, and to challenge the world diversity theory and peaceful coexistence (that is, “harmony not uniformity”) principle with the “clash of civilizations theory”, etc.
The Five Principles are acknowledged and praised by the majority of countries in the contemporary world. Among the big powers, between China and the United States or between Russia and the United States, it is inevitable that they have some disputes as driven by their own interests, but they still will have to do their best in seeking mutually peaceful coexistence, cooperation and competition. China has always implemented the Five Principles with the goal of peaceful development. The Five Principles also reflect Chinese traditions and philosophy – “peace (harmony) is always cherished” and “harmony but not uniformity,” help reshape China’s image in its peaceful rise and serve as an important base for the “China opportunity theory”. And based on the Five Principles, China’s diplomacy, through evolution and development, has developed into a complete system: Following the road of peaceful development, taking the Five Principles as the foundation, using independent foreign policies of peace as the leverage, upholding the banner of peace, development, cooperation and win-win, promoting the construction of a harmonious world with long-term peace and common prosperity as the vision, and achieving the “Chinese dream” of a grand national rejuvenation as the ultimate goal.
Yu Sui is a professor at the China Center for Contemporary World Studies.