Review: ‘China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’

“Why would China jeopardize its relationship with the United States, the former Soviet Union, Vietnam, and much of Southeast Asia to sustain the Khmer Rouge and provide hundreds of millions of dollars to postwar Cambodia?” asks Sophie Richardson in China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. An advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson not only offers an explanation of China’s foreign policy but also dispels the notion that it is irrational, inherently threatening, and malevolent. Through careful historical examination, Richardson argues that a set of beliefs, referred to as the five principles of peaceful coexistence, have been driving Chinese foreign policy since the 1954 Geneva Conference.

The five principles, originally developed by the Chinese Communist Party and articulated by Mao Zedong, include mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, nonaggression, noninterference in others’ internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. According to Richardson, these principles “are a guide to action that explains why China forges and maintains relationship with all matter of states, why the world’s largest per capita recipient of foreign aid continues to give money away, and the circumstances under which it will respond aggressively.” Adherence to the five principles has allowed China to normalize and maintain relations with a variety of states, regardless of size, strategic importance, regime type, or level of development. Moreover, it has also helped the country establish positive working relations within diplomatic organizations such as the United Nations.

In constructing her argument, Richardson meticulously examines the implementation of the five principles by analyzing the history of China’s relationship with Cambodia. She maintains that the principles are obvious in this particular relationship because of the two countries’ similar experiences, such as tense relations with the United States and/or the Soviet Union, “significant development obstacles, and twentieth-century liberation struggles.” Yet without an understanding of the five principles framework, the reasons behind China’s support for Cambodia since 1950s remain largely inexplicable.

Whereas China’s relationship with Cambodia is that of “friendly, fraternal neighbors,” China’s relationship with the United States is one of clashing principles. In her evaluation of the Sino-U.S. relationship, Richardson suggests that U.S. policy runs so contrary to the five principles that Chinese officials tend to perceive it as threatening. For example, America’s intervention in internal affairs globally, from its invasion of Iraq to its ongoing criticism of China’s human rights situation and support of Taiwan has lead Beijing to view Washington as constantly encroaching on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other states. Simultaneously, China has grown increasingly frustrated with its portrayal as an “unfriendly, unreliable competitor and at worst, a genuine threat” to America. Richardson argues that a lack of close diplomatic relationships, such as the one between Zhou Enlai and Norodom Sihanouk, the former king of Cambodia, also contributes to misperceptions and tense relations between the two countries.

Richardson’s analysis is deep and empirically grounded, with most of the research derived from archival sources and more than 80 interviews with Chinese foreign policy makers. The problem, Richardson writes, is that “in this vortex of journalistic misinformation, scholarship focusing disproportionately on China’s uncooperative behavior, and an information vacuum resulting from official Chinese censorship and propaganda, many continue to assume that China’s motivations are generally malevolent or irrational and do not entertain the possibility that China’s motivations could be positive or logical.”

In her book, Richardson doesn’t apologize or excuse Chinese foreign policy, nor does she present a pro-China argument. Instead, China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence clears away the cobwebs of consistent misperceptions of China’s international actions. Given China’s growing prominence in the international community, an objective and intellectual understanding of the factors that motivate the construction of Chinese foreign policy is imperative.

Anna Kalinina is an intern for Foreign Policy In Focus.