Idealism under Pressure: China's Foreign Policy Principles and the Korean Peninsula Crisis

Article excerpt

As an emerging power, China hopes to reconstruct the existing international system in East Asia and create better conditions to support its national interests without adopting an aggressive posture at the same time. Taking the initiative to start the six-party talks in 2003 to negotiate North Korea's nuclear programme, Beijing wished to become the leader of a new chapter in East Asia's history. On the one hand, China hoped to take control over the process of North Korea's denuclearisation; on the other hand, it wanted to use the momentum to build its positive image and reputation in the international arena.

The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence have been used as the guide for China's foreign policy since the 1950s. Since the 1980s, Chinese foreign policy has aimed to promote a peaceful international and regional environment for its domestic economic development. This article puts across the argument that, contrary to the desired goals of these principles, China has unintentionally contributed to the deterioration of the situation on the Korean peninsula. As a result, it may need to adjust its approach to better deal with this difficult foreign policy challenge in the years ahead.

Major factors that have jeopardised the Chinese initiative in the peace process are analysed here: China's peaceful but inflexible foreign policy principles, North Korea's independent policy, the nuclear crisis and the United States' role in East Asia. The argument posited is that although Chinese policymakers and scholars took an optimistic approach by claiming that China's Korean peninsula policy serves the interests of China and others involved, the problem has now become more serious than ever. (1)

China's Foreign Policy Principles

The peaceful principles of Chinese foreign policy are rooted in the Middle Kingdom's pre-Opium War tributary system and trade-oriented foreign relations, and reflect the Chinese traditional virtues of being passive and self-oriented. China has claimed that only by upholding the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence can international problems, such as the Korean peninsula nuclear issue, be resolved.

In various Chinese Communist Party's documents published in the early 1950s, especially after the Bandung Conference in 1955, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence--mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence--had become the flagship of the New China's diplomacy. (2) Since then, Chinese diplomats and policymakers have used these principles as guidelines for Chinese diplomacy.

In Chinese culture, the notion of an ideal order under heaven differs from the Western understanding. In China, the solid basis for being moral is found in the Confucian school. First of all, the moral order stems from the family hierarchical order. Next, this order constitutes the basis for social order. Moral leadership is exemplified by enlightened rulers, who live in accordance with the norms and spread them through wise measures of education and social control. The values embodied include harmony, stability and hierarchy. From the Confucius tradition, only individuals with moral forces are capable of building relationships with others. Such cultural values also apply to nation-states. Although China joined the "non-Chinese world" after its forced opening in the mid-19th century, it hoped to build and maintain its unique and superior character.

In the late 1990s, along with "national studies fever" (guo xue re), the Chinese authorities started to revive the Confucian traditions in order to present China as a positive and peaceful power. The Confucian rhetoric reached its peak in the "harmonious world" and "harmonious society" concepts of Hu Jintao. In Hu's opinion, there are four major parts to "upholding a lasting peace" (chijiu heping). …