Will the Belt and Road Initiative change China’s stance on sovereignty and non-interference?

By Maria Adele Carrai

China has been deemed to be the stronghold of Westphalia sovereignty. However, its increased investments and interests abroad, which followed the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, might change its stance on the principles of sovereignty and non-interference.

Since the first systematic translation of international law into Chinese after the Second Opium War (1856–60), sovereignty has become a key pillar of Chinese foreign policy. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the principles of sovereignty and non-interference became the foundation of its foreign policy, as defined by the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence included in the Constitution. Although the PRC under Mao Zedong’s rule actively attempted to export socialism, supporting domestic politics in guerrilla movements in Mozambique, Nigeria and Angola, in general it did not interfere in other countries’ domestic affairs. China has been cautious about authorizing sanctions and military interventions, opposing such actions if they do not have Security Council authorization. Chinese jurists have often labeled humanitarian intervention as an imperialistic strategy on the part of Western powers to interfere and exert undue influence in domestic affairs.

Human rights protection in Chinese academic and political debates always depends on sovereignty, and the idea that no country has the right to interfere in other domestic jurisdictions (Zhou 2001, Zhao 1999, Wei 1991). This was especially felt to be true after a U.S. warplane unintentionally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 during the NATO air operation in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, already vetoed by China as a violation of Yugoslavian sovereignty, and after the later U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, all justified through humanitarian arguments. China has opposed unilateral intervention, and instead has supported UN peacekeeping operations since 1981, recently becoming the second largest financial contributor to United Nations peacekeeping operations (Kim 2015, Hodzi 2019). The PRC is also renowned for attaching less conditionality to its financing than Western powers and the Bretton Woods Institutions, which make their loans conditional on transforming governance and political systems and respect of human rights in the recipient countries (Hernandez 2016).

China’s non-interventionist position on sovereignty has been restated in policy documents related to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was announced by President Xi Jinping in 2013. The State Council’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) reports that: “On the basis of respecting each other’s sovereignty and security concerns, countries along the Belt and Road should improve the connectivity of their infrastructure construction plans and technical standard systems, jointly push forward the construction of international trunk passageways, and form an infrastructure network connecting all sub-regions in Asia, and between Asia, Europe and Africa step by step.” The initiative “upholds the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence: mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence”. It further stresses that China respects “the paths and modes of development chosen by different countries,” and seeks the “biggest common denominator”.

However, the sharp rise of Chinese foreign direct investments to other countries (https://www.aiddata.org/china) in line with the BRI objectives has created new economic interests that China need to protect beyond its sovereign borders. Due to its Going Out strategy that started in 1999 and has culminated in the BRI, China’s non-interventionist stance on sovereignty might in fact change, and there are currently various debates in China about how to balance sovereignty and the increasing need to protect Chinese investments and people abroad. For instance, Li Ming of Peking University has said that “sufficient flexibility should be reserved in the application of the principle of non-intervention in the BRI context” (Li 2016). Various official documents have also started to discuss this changing position, acknowledging that while sovereignty and non-intervention are essential, China now has new interests abroad that have to be protected (Chu 2018). Scholar Samuli Seppänen has suggested that because the objective of the BRI is to open up foreign countries to Chinese investments, and to protect those investments, sovereignty could take different form and might promote a “developmental interventionism” in order to minimize the many political, cultural, and legal risks associated with the project (Seppänen 2018). Many other scholars have also discussed the transformation of China’s policy and its shift toward being more interventionist abroad (Hodzi 2019).

One of the most controversial example that has been used by scholars and media as a proof of a new threatening and imperialistic modus operandi of China in countries where it invests that disregards sovereignty is the 99-year Concession Agreement for the 15,000 acres of Hambantota Port signed in 2017 as part of the BRI between the Sri Lankan government and China Merchant Port Holdings (CMPort), a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE). Another example is the Loan Agreement between China and Kenya. Excerpts from a 2014 contract between the Chinese Export-Import Bank of China and the Republic of Kenya for the loans used for building Kenya’s Standard Gauge Rail, raised much concern about the possible Chinese encroachment on Kenya’s sovereignty. The excerpts specified not only that all disputes around contract must be arbitrated in China, but also that “neither the borrower (Kenya) nor any of its assets is entitles to any right of immunity on the grounds of sovereignty”. These agreements were signed in a context in which China seems to have been expanding its reach well beyond its sovereign borders. For example, in 2017 the People’s Liberation Army signed a ten-year lease agreement at U.S. $11 million per year for a 36-hectare Djibouti facility to establish a naval base for its anti-piracy operations. China has also become increasingly assertive over its sovereign claims in the past decade through building artificial islands in the South China Sea against the claims of its neighbors and abducting booksellers and journalists in Hong Kong and Thailand.

In the case of Hambantota Port, while it is true that China has the potential to limit and challenge Sri Lankan sovereignty, from a closer look of the available parts of the Agreement, China does not seem to have full control over the territory so far, as it cannot use the land for other purposes other than commercial ones and the Sri Lanka government still holds many of the sovereign rights. In the case of Hambatota, it does not seem that Sri Lanka’s sovereignty is substantially void, and it certainly still constitutes a legal fact. The Sri Lankan government, as well as the governments of countries recipients of Chinese money must continue to be clear about the specific use and control of the land allowed to Chinese companies when building infrastructures. The bargaining power is often disproportionally in favour of China, but recipient countries should negotiate better deals or renegotiate bad ones, as the recent case of Malaysia. China does not seem to have intentionally plotted a debt-trap diplomacy and there are instances in which it renegotiated or forgave the debt of some recipient countries that had difficulties in repaying back.

China is expanding its interests abroad, and the official language seems clear—non-intervention and sovereignty remain the pillars of Chinese foreign policy but the protection of Chinese interests, investments and people outside of its sovereign borders have become increasingly important as part of the Going Out strategy and the BRI. To compromise part of its doctrine of non-interference might seem a natural step and China is not acting in an exceptional way. Even its financing the debt of another country does not seem to deviate from long-adopted practices. It is essential to remain vigilant about how China will go about protecting its investments, interests, and its nationals abroad. However, one should not immediately assume that the transformation from being inward-looking to being more aggressively outward-looking necessarily means that China will become an imperial power and that it will completely forget the principle of sovereignty and non-intervention, principles themselves that remain very contested and highly political.


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