April 30, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Geopolitics: The Coming End to China’s Policy of Non-Intervention

As of late April 2012, China's long-standing policy of "non-interference" in the internal affairs of other countries is being tested again, this time in the case of Sudan and South Sudan, which have engaged in intermittent armed conflict over oil resources along their shared border. Although China continues to maintain a close diplomatic relationship with Sudan, Beijing also established relations with South Sudan in July 2011 when the latter seceded from its mother country after a brokered peace process that ended decades of civil war. China has major energy interests in oil-rich South Sudan, and operates a pipeline carrying oil from the south through Sudan to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

In mid-April 2012, South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, made his first official visit to China to seek economic and diplomatic support. He cut short his visit, however, citing the rising threat of conflict from Sudan. These events highlight the fact that China's growing economic engagement overseas has brought it into closer contact with such increasingly complex sets of political relationships, raising questions about how long Beijing can continue to remain aloof ? under the guise of its non-interference policy ? from the affairs of countries in which it has substantial economic and even strategic interests.


Non-Interference: A Relic of the Past?

China formulated its policy of "non-interference in each other's internal affairs" more than six decades ago, when it was economically and politically isolated and had very few foreign relationships in which to interfere. This policy is enshrined in China's constitution and appears as the foundation of most of China's bilateral agreements, including those that establish diplomatic relationships.

The policy is also regularly cited by Chinese diplomats and officials when it is convenient to do so, as when criticizing other countries' (especially U.S.) actions with respect to China, or when justifying why China cannot take part in various international endeavors. Under the "non-interference" banner, China has relied on host governments to protect Chinese investments and citizens in their respective countries. Consistent with this overarching principle, Beijing has often repeated its firm position that it will send no troops abroad.

At the same time, China's growing economic engagement and expanding international reach in the last decade has brought increasing pressure to bear on the efficacy ? even viability ? of its non-interference policy going forward. Some of this pressure comes from governments with close ties to China who are seeking Beijing's assistance. This was the case during Pakistan's massive flooding in the summer of 2010, when Chinese aid and assistance was criticized as grossly minimal. Considerable pressure is also internally generated, as in instances when Chinese nationals overseas are kidnapped or killed, generating a domestic backlash critical of China's inaction.

For the most part, China's stated policy of not interfering in other countries' affairs is being increasingly tested by the routine and often conflicting circumstances and choices China faces in the course of its routine international activities. A series of choices China has already faced involving Sudan and South Sudan are cases in point. How deeply involved should China become in mediating the disputes between the two sides? How should Beijing respond if Chinese nationals working in Sudan are kidnapped by militants, as happened in January 2012? Who should protect Chinese investments in the event of armed conflict between the two sides? Should China help South Sudan build an oil pipeline through Kenya, thus giving it the alternative to bypass the pipeline through Sudan? Strategic questions such as these create a minefield for those Chinese leaders who seek to hold fast to the "non-interference" path.


Re-thinking the Chinese Role in Other Countries

There is evidence that China may be re-thinking its non-interference policy. At least some Chinese analysts and government advisers are debating whether China's traditional "non-interference" principle is still appropriate given its expanding global interests, particularly into regions of instability. For the most part, such internal arguments are being made on the grounds that greater Chinese involvement is necessary to protect its swelling economic interests. One Chinese analyst has argued that Beijing's increasing power requires it to act, rather than "hiding behind other powers" (a criticism voiced by one senior Chinese scholar) that are willing to assume such responsibilities.

Given China's growing military expenditures, it is not surprising that even the taboo subject of potentially employing military forces to protect Chinese overseas interests may soon be open for debate. Chinese leaders appear to have crossed the Rubicon already on the use of Chinese peace-keeping forces in other countries (which Beijing permits under U.N. auspices). Some Chinese analysts have argued that China has already committed combat troops overseas by routinely sending People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy ships on escort duty to deter piracy off the Somali coast.  

At least some those taking part in this debate appear to have accepted the premise that China should play a more active role in protecting its overseas interests; these analysts have moved on to discussing under what circumstances this should occur – such as in cases where China's core national interests have been seriously challenged. Whatever the ultimate outcome of this ongoing debate, it is likely that we will be seeing an increasing elasticity in China's interpretation of its "non-interference" policy. Already, China has begun to evacuate its citizens from conflict situations, as it did in Libya in 2011. The scope of possible future scenarios where Chinese intervention would be deemed acceptable could include deploying Chinese security forces to actively protect Chinese groups working overseas; mounting missions to rescue kidnapped Chinese personnel; or taking pre-emptive action to protect extensive Chinese economic investments.

To be sure, the deployment of Chinese military troops will not occur in a geopolitical void. Rather, Beijing could quickly find that its broadening sphere of interests directly overlaps with ? and may conflict with ? that of the West (and, especially, the U.S.). Tensions inherently increase whenever Chinese and American military forces find themselves in close geographic proximity, even if pursuing objectives that are not necessarily competitive. As the economic stakes continue to rise, so will the risks that even a minor diplomatic miscue could lead to profound problems on a geostrategic level.



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