Ever since its founding, the People's Republic of China has adhered to a foreign policy of non-interference in other country's internal affairs -- or so it claims. But with China's rapid ascent and ever-closer integration with the outside world, this doctrine has become increasingly anachronistic.
Overseas, China's role in places like Sudan and Myanmar not only draws international opprobrium, but also taints its reputation. By maintaining cozy relations with repressive regimes and protecting them from international sanctions, China risks being seen as their accomplice. Even when China's voice could be decisive in resolving crises or preventing bloodshed, instead of acting, its diplomats repeat the platitudes about non-interference.
The recent "saffron revolution" in Myanmar presented China with not only a challenge, but also an opportunity to exert its influence. Yet it failed the test of statesmanship once again by sitting on its hands and merely calling for restraint. Thanks to China's collusion, the suffering of Myanmar's people continues.
Beijing's mixture of inaction with a mercantilist approach to its trading partners attests to the hypocrisy of its foreign policy: Where access to natural resources is concerned, China is more than willing to discard its non-interference doctrine.
This has not gone unnoticed, as a wave of anti-China movements has spread across Africa. In Zambia, Chinese mining firms' indifference to the death of their African employees provoked large protests against China's presence. Though China finally pacified the situation by threatening to withdraw investment, doing so meant reneging on the promise not to meddle in other countries' domestic affairs.
Of course, interference in the internal affairs of another country isn't inherently evil. When it is harnessed to promote growth and human rights, interference should be appreciated, regardless of the regime that is doing it. China's vast influence over a few fellow dictatorships still holds out the best hope of softening their misrule. But can China be persuaded to wield its influence constructively, rather than maintaining its pretense of neutrality when its assistance is badly needed?
So far, China's leaders have not seen the merits of abandoning non-interference. Their reasons also seem to have a pragmatic ring. They don't want to cause North Korea to collapse by being too harsh; they fear losing influence in Myanmar to India or the US; no one is doing much about Darfur, so to jeopardize the supply of oil by pushing the Sudanese regime appears futile. But pragmatism has its limits, particularly when it permits dangerous situations to fester.
Indeed, China's pandering to dictators in its quest for resources contradicts its long-term interest in being acknowledged as a benign and legitimate power and commanding the international respect that it craves. Had Beijing put pressure on the Myanmar junta to stop slaughtering its own people, it would have earned substantial moral credit around the world.
China now faces a dilemma. Should its parochial interests give way to more cosmopolitan responsibilities? How it answers this question will largely determine how the world views it for decades to come. If China doesn't want to be seen as complicit in the crimes of its client regimes, then it is time for it to alter its concept of diplomatic interference.