BEIJING — Chinese President Xi Jinping deployed an unusual defense Saturday of China’s foreign and military policies: the celebration of an obscure, decades-old treaty called the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.”
Alongside Burma’s president and India’s vice president, Xi presided over an event replete with lofty ideals. Ostensibly, the ceremony’s goal was to commemorate the treaty’s 60th anniversary.
But it also served as an attempt to rebut criticism and concern from Asian and U.S. leaders over China’s recent territorial claims.
In a speech about the principles, Xi outlined China’s basic framework for foreign policy. Much of his speech stressed that China is peaceful by nature and focused on the concept of noninterference in the affairs of other countries. But Xi also declared that “no infringement upon the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a country is allowed.”
To many Asian leaders, China’s foreign policy of late has been anything but aimed at peaceful coexistence. China has engaged in volatile confrontations with several neighbors over claims in the South China Sea.
Riots broke out last month in Vietnam after China installed an oil rig in disputed waters. China’s navy remains in a standoff with the Philippines over a region called the Scarborough Shoal. And China’s relations with Japan have been tense since China last year declared an air defense identification zone over disputed islands. The United States, Japan’s ally, promptly responded by sending two bombers through the zone.
Meanwhile, U.S. attempts to pivot military and diplomatic attention from the Middle East toward Asia have elicited one consistent response from China: Butt out of Asian affairs. Without naming the United States, Xi made pointed remarks on the doomed policies of any country seeking to impose its will on others.
“We should respect the right of a country to choose its own social system and model of development,” he said, “and oppose the attempt for the purpose of seeking self-interest or imposing one’s own views to oust a legitimate leadership of a government through illegal means.”
Some of Xi’s comments, however, seemed to fly in the face of China’s increased aggression in recent years as its military and economic might have grown.
“Flexing military muscles only reveals the lack of moral grounds or vision rather than reflecting one’s strength,” Xi said.
The speech was one of the few major domestic addresses open to foreign news media that Xi has made since he took power in 2012.
In the weeks leading to Saturday’s ceremony, state-run media here have published a string of articles and commentaries on the legacy of China’s “Five Principles.”
The principles were laid out in 1954 by China’s then-premier ,Zhou Enlai, and helped to establish stable relations with India and Burma. The principles can be summarized as mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression, noninterference in one another’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.
Some of the recent commentary has used the principles to praise China’s foreign policy and criticize the United States. While China has celebrated previous anniversaries of the treaty, this was its most high-profile commemoration.
China has chosen to highlight the five principles precisely because of the disputes with its neighbors, said Ji Qiufeng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University. It is a way to improve China’s image while reiterating its positions.
The principles’ peaceful goals are the essence of foreign relations, Ji said. “No country in the world could argue against them.”
As for any contradictions between the principles’ goals of peace and what some view as China’s aggressive recent actions, Ji summed up Xi’s basic point.
“For the disputes in the South China Sea, the problem is not with China,” he said. “It’s with the other countries.”
Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.