From Ideology to Pragmatism: China's Position on Humanitarian Intervention in the Post-Cold War Era

By Davis, Jonathan E. | Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, March 2011 | Go to article overview
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From Ideology to Pragmatism: China's Position on Humanitarian Intervention in the Post-Cold War Era


Davis, Jonathan E., Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law


ABSTRACT

This Article fills a gap in the literature by examining in depth China's state practice and official pronouncements in respect of nine post-Cold War cases typically cited by academics when considering the international legal status of humanitarian intervention. The majority of today's commentary and scholarship holds that the People's Republic of China's position on sovereignty and intervention remains inflexible and absolutist, much as it was for the PRC's first four decades. This Article contends that this view is outdated and overly simplistic: while China continues to champion a strong conception of state sovereignty in interstate relations, it has signaled a shift from an ideological insistence on noninterference toward a more pragmatic approach to humanitarian crises. In particular, this can be seen in China's willingness to acquiesce in and even actively support multilateral humanitarian interventions that obtain both Security Council authorization and target state consent, as well as in China's willingness to use its growing economic and diplomatic leverage to help secure consent to intervention.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

I.   INTRODUCTION
II.  HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTION AND INTERNATIONAL LAW
III. HISTORICAL CHINESE ATTITUDES TOWARD INTERVENTION
IV.  CHINESE ATTITUDES TOWARD HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTION IN THE 1990S
     A. Iraq: The Northern and Southern No-Fly Zones
     B. Somalia
     C. Haiti
     D. Rwanda
     E. Bosnia
     F. Kosovo
     G. East Timor
V. CHINESE ATTITUDES TOWARD HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTION IN THE 2000S
     A. The Responsibility to Protect
     B. Darfur
VI. ANALYSIS: CONTINUITY AND CHANGE IN CHINESE ATTITUDES TOWARD
    HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTION
VII. CONCLUSION

I. INTRODUCTION

The rise of the People's Republic of China (PRC) raises many questions about the country's perceptions of international law, as well as how China conceives of its role as a great power in the international system. With its growing economic, political, and military power, as well as its increasing assertiveness in international relations, China is now a relevant actor in a broad range of issues that transcend national borders. (1) Historically, China has expounded an absolutist conception of sovereignty, which stands in contrast to the sovereignty-eroding characteristics of many solutions to today's most pressing transnational problems. (2) Whether and how China adapts its traditional views of sovereignty to meet these challenges will say a lot about China's rise and its future role in the international system.

One particularly instructive lens through which to examine China's changing attitudes toward sovereignty and intervention is its response to humanitarian crises, which have been--and are almost certain to remain--a common feature of international relations in the post-Cold War world. The role China plays in future humanitarian crises will depend in large part on its position on the limits of sovereignty and the international legal constraints on humanitarian intervention.

Surprisingly little has been written about China's position on humanitarian intervention, notwithstanding the country's ability to shape or obstruct the development of international norms in this area. As one commentator put it, "[e]ither China is perceived to be irrelevant to emerging post-Cold War norms in this area or it is viewed as simply an insurmountable obstacle, so far out of step with the rest of the world that it should be ignored." (3) This Article suggests just the opposite. With its great-power status and privileged position as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China has considerable influence over the development of the international law of humanitarian intervention. Additionally, although China's position often conflicts with the position of those who promote a right of humanitarian intervention, it is hardly "far out of step" with global trends.

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