In China’s new diplomacy, a revival of ‘Panchsheel’

Chinese President Xi Jinping   | Photo Credit: Lionel Bonaventure

On Saturday, China’s President Xi Jinping will welcome Vice President Hamid Ansari to the Great Hall of the People, the sprawling Parliament building that extends across the western edge of Tiananmen Square.

Mr. Ansari and Mr. Xi will, along with Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, preside over a commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the “Panchsheel” or “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” – the five tenets of diplomacy championed by Jawaharlal Nehru and then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, first invoked in a 1954 treaty on Tibet and later coming into prominence at the famous Asian-African conference at Bandung.

What is ostensibly the remembrance of a long-gone historical moment has acquired renewed significance in Beijing, underlined by the unexpected importance accorded to a rather obscure anniversary by Mr. Xi’s government.

The “Panchseel”, which refers to mutual respect for sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, cooperation for mutual benefit and peaceful co-existence, has become a mainstay of China’s diplomacy – even if no longer remembered by many in India – routinely referred to in Beijing’s diplomatic dealings with every nation.

Today, the “five principles” have been seized upon by China as it looks to recast its diplomacy in a region where its rise has begun to evoke anxiety and concern among many of its neighbours.

Last month, Mr. Xi outlined for the first time China's vision of a new “Asian Security Concept” at a regional security summit in Shanghai.

At the heart of his idea was nothing other than a slightly reframed “Panchsheel”.

“The five principles that China initiated together with India and Myanmar,” he said, “have become a basic norm governing state-to-state relations.” China would “develop friendly relations and cooperation with other countries on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence”. “China’s peaceful development begins here in Asia, finds its support in Asia, and delivers tangible benefits to Asia,” Mr. Xi said.

His speech was seen as an attempt to counter concerns in the wake of renewed territorial tensions between China and the Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea. His “security concept” highlighted a focus on economic integration, just as China has unveiled a new “maritime silk road” plan, pledging to increase investment in Southeast Asian countries and taking forward an Asian infrastructure bank project.

The hidden subtext of his use of the “Panchsheel” was an implicit criticism of the role of China's great rival, the United States, which Beijing has blamed for “provoking” countries into disputes through its “rebalance” to Asia.

“In the final analysis," Mr. Xi said, "it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia,” as he quoted a proverb warning that “One who tries to blow out other's oil lamp will get his beard on fire”.

Zhao Gancheng, a scholar on South Asia and Strategic Affairs at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS), said that while on the surface Panchsheel “looks very much like a label and empty words”, it had taken on new relevance “in the reality of today’s Asian security situation” and the concept outlined by Mr. Xi.

“We believe Asian affairs should be handled by Asians,” Mr. Zhao said. “Look at Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of Asia. These countries which observed lots of conflict can more or less attribute it to interference from the outside. Outside forces have played a very negative role”. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, he said, would provide “a testing ground” for this “Asian model”.

Critics, however, would argue that the Panchsheel – much like Bandung – has lost its relevance in a much changed world. Ideas such as “non-interference”, championed by China especially regarding its sensitivities on Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang, are routinely applied subjectively, while the flaring up of territorial disputes undermines its very premise.

And, on Saturday, when the “five principles” will be remembered fondly by Mr. Xi and Mr. Ansari sixty years on, left unsaid will be remembrance of its biggest failure: a war between its two founding proponents, barely eight years after its inception.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 2:28:00 AM |

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