The Two States of Nature in Chinese Non-interventionism

Written by Chih-yu Shih.

It is easy to spot a contradiction between theory and practice in any government’s foreign policy, whether of a hegemonic government such as the United States, or the government of a rising power such as China. In the following, I will explore and compare the foundations in political thought of one particular contradiction in respectively US intervention policy and Chinese non-intervention policy. Examining differences in political thought helps explain why the Chinese understanding of intervention, informed by Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist traditions, usually appears apologist from a perspective informed by Western traditions in thought. I will argue that American interventionism, reliant on the Western tradition, is Lockean in the selection of targets and Hobbesian when it is enforced. In comparison, Chinese non-interventionism aligns more with the idea of Tao, or Way, which can justify both external non-action and internal self-strengthening.

A contradiction between theory and practice is manifest across intervention policy. This article attends specifically to the internal contradiction between the principles according to which Washington and Beijing evaluate whether a state should be subjected to intervention, the very different set of principles that guide their own actions towards such states and the principles that guide how they rule themselves. A realist understanding of this kind of contradiction would accept this hypocrisy as easily explained by national interest calculus. However, a more complex approach seems justified as foreign policy leaders are typically believed to act with good reason and at the very least need to argue for public support. In cases where the theory-practice contradiction bothers neither policy makers nor their constituencies, something deeper than functional hypocrisy must be the cause of this apparent desensitization.

A loss of sensitivity is apparent when individual military interventions mandated by Washington do not comply with human rights norms that the US purport to use to identify failed states requiring of intervention. In fact, US interventions have resulted in massive civilian casualties and jeopardized the treasures of civilization. And yet this irony does not incur serious self-criticism. Similarly, China’s insistence on non-intervention in failed states, in order that spontaneity may take over the course of events, contrasts with Beijing’s constant appeals for self-strengthening in domestic governance. The Chinese government and people’s disregard of failing governance in other countries contrasts with the portrayal of good governance as a triumph of the Chinese Communist Party.

If, as is the case, this basic contradiction does not distress those who sustain it politically or their domestic audiences, it must be perceived to be either ‘natural’ or required by the state of nature. At the same time, the subject of humanitarian intervention presents an excellent opportunity to discuss what the state of nature is or should be: intervention appears most easily justifiable in cases where, depending on the theory, intervention either restores or improves the state of nature. I will argue that the imagined states of nature that desensitize the contradiction in US intervention policy are both Lockean and Hobbesian. China, in turn, can find ways to desensitize the contradictions in their non-interventionism through the dialectical relationship between a transcendental ontology, which favors inaction, and a transcendental epistemology that favors self-strengthening as required by the situation.

One significant contradiction in US humanitarian intervention policy is its militarist tendency. Militarism appears to have driven the fabrication of evidence, the torture of POWs and rooting of treasures, in addition to unilateral withdrawal before full restoration of order. The existence of separate principles for rule of the other and of the self delinks militarist intervention from the humanitarianism that prompts interventions. The treatment of other states echoes Locke, anchoring the failed state on its incapacity for democracy and human rights whereas in the Lockean state of nature, people should be free, equal and independent. Not conforming to this state merits outside intervention. American norms for its own behavior echo Hobbes because intervention takes place via international relations and IR theorists generally presuppose Hobbesian anarchy. The double states of nature within and between the states as prescribed by Locke and Hobbes are the most plausible mechanisms of thought to desensitize the contradiction between humanitarianism and militarism.

Political thought pertaining to the state of nature exists in the Chinese classics as well as their modern derivatives. Perhaps the most widely noted version is the symbiosis of Yin and Yang, referring to the opposite and yet combined characteristics of the matter, which give rise to each other and evolve dialectically. In the philosophy of history, this model supports the cyclical view of harmony and chaos taking turns. Classic Confucian and Taoist thought similarly connect mundane affairs and conditions, which are chaotic, to an amorphous being, which is pervasive, inexpressible, and yet retrievable via learning. For Taoism and Buddhism, the ultimate being is respectively Tao (or the way), which equalizes all, and nothingness, which deconstructs all meanings. For Confucianism, it is the kingly way that connects all-under-heaven via benevolence. One shared tenet of all three to rulers is “non-action,” (wuwei) which shall allow matters to calm down into their harmonious nature.

On the other hand, at times, transcendence may require actions, as opposed to meditation, that will stop the power of chaos from extending further. For Confucianism, this is the moment that the civilized world encounters the danger of extinction during barbarian invasion. For Buddhism, it is the sympathy for the majority of people suffering hardship. Neo-Confucianism is particularly keen to the thinking mechanism that will enable a believer of harmony to learn science that exploit, rather than respect, the nature. Neo-Confucianism relies heavily on Buddhism, first to construct a formless and nameless subjectivity that, via non-action, encompasses all and, second, with the enlightened self-understanding no longer subject to the material world, to act on Great Sympathy via reform and self-strengthening in the mundane world that shall ultimately enlighten the unaware commoners.

Neo-Confucianism thus adopts modernity as a necessary lesson required by the occasion. The challenge of modernity is reduced to a choice of mode of reform. Learning from Western institutions (e.g. nationalism, liberalism, socialism, and so on) and technologies constitutes modern self-strengthening. Consequently, the symbiosis of yin and yang continues to guide the view of the world, leading to a seeming contradiction in the acceptance of the world as it is and the simultaneous endeavor to enlighten the commoners via self-strengthening. The former sees no interventionary action necessary since all are of same characteristic in their ultimate formless existence. The latter sees the mundane world in need of transcendence and therefore learning along in order to enlighten.

Traditional Chinese attitudes bifurcate into one strand that stresses patience and non-action for the chaos to settle down over a natural course and another strand that emphasizes self-strengthening to enlighten the commoners. Either tendency is familiar to Chinese. Together, they desensitize the contradiction caused by the shift between them. The belief in the inevitability of the cycle of harmony and chaos lessens anxiety about the suffering of people elsewhere. The coexistence of the ontology of formless subjectivity and an epistemology of learning de-sensitizes the contradiction caused by a policy of non-intervention that takes other’s unfortunate failure and China’s own improvement both as necessitated by the states of nature.

The most important contradiction in China’s non-intervention policy is between the belief that China must strive for good governance and success, by means of heavy intervention of the state in the society, and the perception that China should not get involved in failed state and society elsewhere. Official Chinese sources state that local people must determine local values and institutions. External intervention weakens and impairs local mechanisms required to restore order. Such official indifference reflects the long-held philosophy of history that harmony and chaos are destined to take turns. Any intervention would be in vain, however well-intended or heavily invested. Still one essential question remains unanswered: why must China stay in order while others can be left in chaos? Two contrasting schools of thought provide answers.

One answer may be sought in the common belief found in Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism in an amorphous nature of being that manifests itself in different forms in the mundane world. Whether successful or failing, governance always eventually falls back to its essential nature. The other answer reminds China of its duty as an agent of enlightenment that must contribute to the transcendence of human suffering. For Confucianism, this means to harmonize all-under-heaven and for Buddhism, Great Sympathy for the suffering, unable in their state to appreciate that their subjectivity lies in nothingness. Secular engagement is called in the latter case in order to reform the mundane world and to improve the learning of the suffering. Only through Great Sympathy that safeguards the people from suffering and injustice could the unenlightened eventually transcend the forms to achieve real universal being.

The American wish that China intervene in Sudan, Myanmar, Syria and elsewhere has been met with disapproval from China. In a few cases, though, China has either approved or at least abstained from voting, allowing UN sanctions to be passed under US leadership. However, Chinese acquiescence in these cases heavily depended on the consent of the extant legal regime in the target state, or requests made by relevant regional organizations. China’s adherence to the principle of sovereignty appears to violate the rationale behind the institution of sovereignty in the first place: gradually developed from the fundaments of the Westphalia Treaty, it is now the protection of human rights. According to Neo-Confucianism, however, an enlightened subjectivity in appreciation of nothingness is a precondition to self-strengthening, which cannot be imposed through intervention.

The politics of global governance accordingly see one state of nature opposing another state of nature. The American vision on the state of nature stresses equality, freedom and the independence of individuals. In Chinese thought, the state of nature is chaos and harmony taking turns spontaneously in accordance with the way. Intervention is either unnecessary or even harmful. The Chinese approach of investing in local infrastructure and ruling elites’ well-being embodies the principle of non-intervention in the hope that eventually, elites’ capacity to effect tolerance and material improvement will restore general order. China has shown its willingness to facilitate negotiation between adversaries. Since the philosophy of harmony opposes division, China typically receives disputing parties in turns in Beijing to create an atmosphere for peaceful settlement.

From the perspective of the Lockean state of nature, the choice not to intervene in the face of human rights violations in a failed state’s society points to a weak conception of human rights. From the perspective of the Hobbesian state of nature, the choice for non-intervention amounts to an alliance between the non-intervening state and the target state. Both traditions being important references in the American intellectual consciousness, the US understandably looks at Chinese non-intervention with enormous anxiety: from its human rights perspective, China constitutes a failed state. China could also ally itself with states which according to US intervention policy should rightly be treated as an enemy within an anarchical international system. In such an intellectual environment, political thought that explains Chinese non-interventionism equals an apologist acknowledgement of its negligence for humanity.

From a Chinese political thought perspective, US interventionism does not come from an enlightened self-understanding embedded in transcendence because of its inherent teleology that seeks to transform anything local. Rather, the American call for intervention appears to stem from a mundane desire for material dominance and is a source of chaos in itself. China invariably finds evidence to support this impression in the Hobbesian style of unrestrained use of military force and abuse adopted by the US in its interventions, undoubtedly seeing parallels to barbarian invasion. This situation, then, prompts a reaction in the form of calls for self-strengthening. Chinese people thus have come to see self-strengthening as their duty, in order that China may allegedly serve as a model for the rest of the world, proving that power politics can be transcended and harmony restored.

Chih-yu Shih is Professor at the Department of Political Science, National Taiwan University.

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