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China Rediscovers Ethics in Foreign Policy

By Harry Harding | January 6, 2009

Deng Xiaoping: "It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice." CREDIT: Kevin Steele (CC).

In the fall of last year, the Carnegie Council sent a small delegation to Beijing to identify and discuss the ethical principles that guide China's international conduct. In addition to myself, the delegation included Jonathan Gage, a trustee of the Council and publisher of strategy+business, Booz & Company's business magazine; Joshua Eisenman, fellow for Asia at the American Foreign Policy Council; Devin Stewart, director of the Council's Global Policy Innovations program; and Alex Westlake, managing director of ClearWorld Energy's Beijing office.

The delegation's goal was to identify both the normative differences between China and the United States—differences that might lead Beijing and Washington to adopt different approaches to common international problems—and the similarities in ethical thinking that could promote cooperation and mutual understanding between our two countries.

Although we were invariably received with great courtesy, we found some of our Chinese colleagues to be quite skeptical about our mission. America's promotion of human rights is widely regarded as a way of attacking China's domestic policies or even of undermining China's domestic stability. In the same way, some of our interlocutors expressed their concern that a discussion of international norms was simply another American tactic for criticizing China's international conduct or a strategy aimed at forcing China to comply with U.S. foreign policy preferences. We had to reassure them that we were open to a serious discussion of China's views, along with those of other non-Western countries, on the ethical basis for international conduct. Our goal was not primarily to press China to adopt the same international norms as the United States, but rather to gain a better understanding of the international norms that China espouses.

A common objection was the tendency to equate ethical considerations with ideological concerns, and then to contrast both of these to more pragmatic ways of thinking about policy choices. We were told on numerous occasions that Chinese are a "pragmatic" people who are uninterested in abstract discussions of ethics. The tacit assumption was that ethical thinking is impractical, and that pragmatism implies indifference to normative considerations. Deng Xiaoping's well-known saying that "black cat or white cat, if it catches mice, it's a good cat" was frequently cited in support of this proposition.

We were puzzled by this argument, since we were well aware of China's rich ethical traditions. When we pursued the point, we were told that the Maoist era had significantly discredited ethical discourse in China. Mao's Cultural Revolution was characterized by a highly moralistic approach to politics that, in the end, associated ethical principles (particularly Mao's demand for continuing revolution against privilege and inequality) with an impractical and costly set of policy options (the denigration of expertise, an aversion to material incentives, and the dismantling of bureaucratic institutions). This led many Chinese to conclude that there is a fundamental incompatibility between thinking ethically and acting pragmatically.

When applied to foreign policy, this skeptical attitude toward ethics was reinforced by the realist tradition in international political theory—a theoretical tradition that is very comfortable for many Chinese. Realism holds that a country's foreign policy should be entirely based on an assessment of national interests, and it is inappropriate to impose normative considerations on what should properly be an interest-based behavior. Realism was said to be especially suitable for a developing country like China. Several of our Chinese colleagues described ethical considerations as a "luxury" reserved for rich and powerful countries. They asserted that poorer and weaker nations would have to do whatever was necessary to ensure their survival, whether or not it violated others' definitions of ethical behavior.

Although we heard much skepticism about applying ethical considerations to Chinese foreign policy, a number of Chinese colleagues expressed substantial interest.

In part, this interest reflected their concern about the costs that indifference to ethics was having on China's own society. We arrived in China just as the extent of the tainted milk scandal was becoming clear: Milk had been spiked with melamine as an inexpensive way of enhancing its protein content, but melamine can cause kidney failure in infants and kidney stones in children and older people. Many people realized that this contamination of milk products (and, it was later discovered, meat and other dairy products as well) reflected the dairy companies' unwillingness to allow ethical standards to hamper their quest for profits. We were told that the scandal, along with other similar scandals before it, was creating a growing interest in reconstructing an ethical foundation for Chinese society, drawing not only on China's past ethical traditions, but also on socialist norms and on Western ethical systems.

Although most of that discussion has so far been focused on the need to reintroduce ethical considerations to China's domestic affairs, some of our interlocutors acknowledged its relevance to foreign policy as well. But their interest in this question did not simply reflect the desire that their country adopt ethical standards of conduct for their own sake. There was also a two-pronged instrumental argument: that espousing norms of international behavior could enhance China's soft power, and that the invocation of ethical standards could legitimate its development and use of harder forms of power. As China grows in economic and military strength, simple reassurances of a peaceful rise will become less credible and persuasive than the argument that ethical considerations are shaping its international behavior. And, at the same time, ethical arguments can also be used to delegitimize the actions of one's competitors and rivals.

As the Chinese gradually rediscover the need to introduce ethical considerations into their foreign policy, what will those considerations be? The Chinese Communist Party has generally been attracted to the classic Westphalian norms of international affairs, particularly those norms that enshrine the autonomy of the nation-state against external pressures. In fact, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, first formulated by Beijing in the mid-1950s, provide a concise summary of those norms: national sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-aggression, peaceful coexistence, non-intervention in another country's internal affairs, and equality and mutual benefit.

More recently, these norms have come into conflict with what might be called post-Westphalian norms that stress the right (and indeed the obligation) of the international community to infringe on the autonomy of the nation-state to protect or advance other considerations. Westphalian norms also stand in contrast to what the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs describes as the tendency to regard "social system, ideology, or the concept of values" as inevitably determining the relationship between nations.

The Westphalian norm of national sovereignty thus contrasts with the concept of humanitarian intervention or the responsibility to protect; territorial integrity with the more recent norm of self-determination; peaceful coexistence with international efforts to promote human rights in those countries where they are violated; equality with the principle that rogue states should be denied some rights of participation in the international community; and the norm of non-aggression with the use of military action to enforce international norms. Both Westphalian and non-Westphalian norms can easily be justified. Each set reflects a powerful ethical tradition. But they produce very different approaches to today's international problems.

Chinese leaders and policy analysts understand that these post-Westphalian norms make sense in a world in which a wide range of social, economic, and security issues span and erode the national borders that Westphalian principles hold sacrosanct. But they are not entirely comfortable with post-Westphalian ethics. They see post-Westphalian principles—like the principles of universal human rights with which they are associated—as a worrisome challenge to China's security and stability.

As they gradually develop a normative structure to guide their intentional behavior, Chinese leaders will therefore have to find a balance between the traditional Westphalian norms and the newer norms associated with a globalized world. In doing so, they will most likely find common ground with the United States on many issues but will differ on others. Either way, the need for further discussion of international norms between Chinese and Americans will prove to be a fruitful, even essential exercise.

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Read More: Diplomacy, Ethics, Human Rights, Security, China, United States, Americas, Asia

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