China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence

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(Washington D.C.) June 18–Despite Cambodia's history, involving the Khmer Rouge, and its status as a developing nation, China has maintained close relations with the Cambodian government. Based on the messages of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, Dr. Sophie Richardson explained that close relations are likely to continue. Although these Principles were written and released in 1954, they remain quite relevant to China's foreign policy principles today. Dr. Sophie Richardson, advocacy director of the Asia department, Human Rights Watch, and discussant Dr. Brantly Womack, Cumming Memorial professor of foreign affairs, University of Virginia, discussed the dynamic of China's asymmetric relations with Cambodia and examined how China's Five Principles could affect human rights initiatives in Asia.


The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence state China's belief that two countries should agreed to have mutual respect for: a peaceful coexistence, each other's sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs and mutual benefit. Dr. Richardson discussed how the Principles bolster the current Chinese foreign policy in many ways.


First, the rhetoric of non-interference and non-aggression is effective in protecting Chinese sovereignty and territory and helps to assert that it is China's sole responsibility to address its domestic issues. Similarly, this assures others that China will not interfere in other countries' domestic matters (unless China's sovereignty and territory are directly threatened). Beijing's past interaction with the Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia has consistently mirrored these principles. In supporting its own interests in securing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dominance, the Chinese government does not support actors who seek greater political freedom or regime change in other countries. Dr. Richardson also suggests that Chinese efforts to establish a stable, centrally-controlled government explains Beijing's willingness to support and reach out to other monarchies, like Cambodia, and other one-party governments.


Second, the mutual benefit principle allows China to pursue its goals for development and provide economic aid to countries without becoming involved in others' domestic issues or taking sides regarding major international issues. This has many implications for human rights protection in developing nations. Because China rarely budges on its own human rights issues, Beijing often pushes back on norms and institutions established by Western powers to discuss human rights. Dr. Richardson also noted that China does not fully support what are recognized as successful human rights negotiation tactics, such as sanctions and inter-governmental dialogues. She added that without Beijing's support for such measures, it is hard to get others to defend human rights.


Dr. Womack explained that post-1950, smaller countries felt vulnerable to larger powers and began to appreciate the willingness to refrain from intervention. Perhaps this explains why many developing nations have so readily established relations and economic ties with China. However, China's win-win mentality may have a weakness as it implies equal risk and vulnerability for both parties; this is often not the case. Dr. Womack argued that smaller countries may change their views concerning relations with China if the CCP began to shift its focus from domestic issues to foreign policy. Although China is beginning to show some signs of becoming more globally responsible, Dr. Richardson argues that the Five Principles are still alarming for human rights because it does not encourage immediate involvement in addressing human rights abuses.

Sophie Richardson is the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division and oversees the organization's work on China. A graduate of the University of Virginia, the Hopkins-Nanjing Program, and Oberlin College, Dr. Richardson is the author of numerous articles on domestic Chinese political reform, democratization, and human rights in Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. She has testified before the European Parliament and the US Senate and House of Representatives and has provided commentary to numerous media sources, such as BBC, CNN, The New York Times , The Wall Street Journal , and The Washington Post . Dr. Richardson is the author of China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence(Columbia University Press, 2009).


Brantly Womack is the Cumming Memorial Professor of Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. He is also the author of several books on China and its relations within the Asian region. Dr. Womack’s most recent book is China Among Unequals: Asymmetric International Relationships in Asia , which was published with the World Scientific Publishing Company in May 2010. He has also written China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry (Cambridge University Press, 2006), Politics in China , co-authored with James Roger Townsend (Scott Foresman & Co, 1986) and Foundations of Mao Zedong’s Political Thought, 1917-1935 (The University of Hawaii Press, 1982).  Among his edited books are China’s Rise in Historical Perspective and Contemporary Chinese Politics in Historical Perspective . Dr. Womack’s current research involves developing a general theory of international asymmetric relationships as well as an approach to addressing issues of sustainable political economic development in China and Vietnam.