Written by Mordechai Chaziza and Ogen S. Goldman.

Since its foundation, Beijing has experienced several major shifts in its behaviour towards the outside world. As a long-time champion of equal sovereignty, non-interference and peaceful resolution of conflicts, China has displayed extreme caution in refraining from interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries and from endorsing the use of coercive power to resolve intrastate wars.

However, the evidence which our last study revealed suggests that, among the major world powers, the number, extent, and diversity of Beijing’s interventions in intrastate wars is significantly different only from that of the United States and the USSR/Russia. This finding can be explained by two factors. First, the global aspirations of the two super powers, which China does not possess. These global aspirations put the two superpowers in competition for spheres of influence worldwide, so motivating them to interfere in intrastate wars more frequently than China (at least during the Cold War).  The second factor is the relatively low material capacity of China, compared to the United States and the USSR.

China is the only power that has not sent troops to interfere in intrastate wars. On the other hand about two thirds of other types of Chinese interventions were in states in geographic proximity to China. Thus the capacity to transport troops overseas does not appear to explain why China did not send troops for military interventions in intrastate wars.

Yet, as much as Beijing professes allegiance to the doctrine of non-interference in other countries’ affairs, it has in fact interfered in other countries’ business, repeatedly and boldly. So one must ask: why has China maintained its declared principle of non-interference?

The main reason for Beijing to insist on a principle of non-intervention in the affairs of other nations is that China does not want other countries to interfere in its own. Moreover, the non-interference principle is important to China’s sovereignty and core interests. Despite China’s considerable national strength, Western powers have interfered persistently in issues concerning Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang and in the economic and ideological spheres as well.

Furthermore, Chinese hostility to intervention in intrastate wars stems partly from its own historical experiences at the hands of foreign powers. This victimization narrative has fostered an acute sensitivity to coercion by foreign powers, and an empathy with poor countries that attempt to resist Western pressure. Finally, it often suits Beijing to oppose Western attempts to effect a ‘regime change’ through force, as in Syria, because China benefits from the status quo in such countries.

Why is there a discrepancy between the Chinese principle and practice? This gap can be explained first by the fact that discrepancies of this kind in foreign policy are certainly not confined to China. Secondly, like other powers, Beijing soon discovered that its principles and interests were not always shared by other international actors, and that states cannot control the external setting in which they operate. Therefore, China had to adapt to the threats and opportunities the international arena laid on its doorstep, and thus breached its own principle of non-intervention.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Beijing principle of non-interference has come under increasing and more visible strain as a result of Chinese involvement and integration in the world economy. China’s engagement with multilateral institutions, along with the combination of large foreign direct investment, trade, and stockpiling of substantial foreign currency reserves, has catapulted Beijing into the position of stakeholder in the world economy. Economic growth and development have been defined as China’s foremost national interest. Thus, China’s chief concerns are political stability and economic growth, so its priority is to declare a non-interference policy that encourages a peaceful environment for its own economic development.

At the bottom line, Beijing has used the non-interference policy as a convenient means for making deals with repressive regimes, criticizing, when it suited, the military interventions of the United States and its allies. And yet when it suited its interests, China itself used the tool of intervention many times for the exact same reasons of maintaining its security and economic interests around the globe.

Furthermore, the pattern of Chinese interventions in intrastate wars is connected to the basic principle of its diplomacy, namely, to maintain a good relationship with all countries. Since China’s chief concern is to ensure a peaceful and stable international environment for its economic development, it must cultivate close relationships with all parties in the conflict—both the government and the VNGO (violent non-governmental organization) that fights against it. Another finding shows that China’s share in supporting actors in intrastate wars and its number of interventions significantly decreases as time passes, while the United States and UK significantly increased their relative share among the powers with respect to their involvement in intrastate wars. One possible explanation is that China’s development into a more powerful player in international relations had impact on the non-interference principle of its foreign policy and on how it has adapted over the years. In addition, years of membership of the Security Council have also led to a significant process of socialization and learning in which Beijing redefined its principles and behavior.

In summary, the Chinese dilemma is two-fold: on the one hand, Beijing does not want to take action against the international community in any way, and eagerly seeks a way to guarantee China’s peaceful development. On the other, China is not abandoning its basic diplomatic principle, which is consistent with its long-term interest and tradition. Beijing’s determination to keep non-interference as its basic diplomatic practice raises questions about how China should respond to the challenges presented to this principle, how long the non-interference policy can be sustained, and whether its interests would be better served by abandoning it for a less rigid position. Chinese current behavior has not given satisfying answers to these questions.

Mordechai Chaziza and Ogen S. Goldman are Lecturers in the Department of Political Science at Ashkelon Academic College, Israel. This piece is a short version of the main findings of a study which was published in: Mordechai Chazziza and Ogen S. Goldman (2014) “Revisiting China’s Non-Interference Policy towards Intrastate Wars”, Chinese Journal of International Politics, 7(1): 1-27.