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The time is ripe for the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence

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South Africa’s former international relations and co-operation minister, Dr Naledi Pandor, addresses a Stellenbosch University aaudience as the special guest of Student Action for Palestine (SA4P), which has joined the international calls for peace and justice, an end to Israeli-occupation and a permanent ceasefire and cessation of the genocide currently ongoing in Gaza. – Picture: Leon Lestrade / Independent Newspapers / May 22, 2024

By David Monyae

China just celebrated the 70th anniversary of the five principles of peaceful co-existence, first articulated by Premier Zhou Enlai in 1953. As its global influence and capabilities continue to rise, these can serve as a normative framework for global governance and stability.

The numbers and levels of warfare declined significantly after the cold war through the 1990s and early 2000s. However, the past decade has seen a sharp increase in conflict across the globe. According to the Centre for Systemic Peace, there are currently over thirty armed conflicts globally.

The Arab uprisings of 2011 triggered conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen, setting off a protracted crisis in the Sahel region. War broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave as well as in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Myanmar army’s power grab that led to conflict, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the devastating war in Gaza and Sudan represent a worrying trend around the globe with a pervasive sense of insecurity and disharmony around the world.

China’s principles of peaceful co-existence have made a significant contribution to the theory of international relations and capable of making practical contributions to global peace and harmony. Mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence are key elements needed to create a peaceful and prosperous world.

These principles have guided China’s successful relations with other countries and regions over the years and idolise sovereignty as a fundamental principle of international relations, which forms the basis of the modern state existence after the Treaties of Westphalia that ended 30 years of war in Europe. Ironically, the same countries from the West often jeopardise global peace and stability by interfering, invading, occupying and disrespecting the sovereignty of developing countries.

The principles also recognise that in their actions, sovereign countries should also consider the interests of other countries and strive to push for mutual gains. For instance, mutual non-aggression is a guide to a peaceful and stable world as articulated by the Global Security Initiative (GSI) that China is advancing to the world.

There has been an erosion of multilateralism which has weaken global governance institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund among others because some countries put their interest first before the collective interest of the world.

The embrace and adoption of these principles by all countries in the world could see a revitalisation of global governance and the avoidance of unnecessary conflicts. India’s Former Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, noted, “If these principles were recognised in the mutual relations of all countries, then indeed there would hardly be any conflict and certainly no war”.

Most importantly, these five principles are significant for developing countries in the Global South who share a history of colonialism and subjugation and are desperate to find their autonomy and voice in the global governance system.

The world today is deeply connected through trade, information systems and people-to-people connections. The interdependence between states is thus increasingly threatened by protectionism, racism, and anti-globalism that will only reverse the gains made over decades.

Today’s global challenges namely global inequality, widespread poverty, climate change, conflict and instability, and inequitable economic systems can be addressed by applying the five principles. The emphasis on equality and mutual benefit means that the world must come up with solutions that will produce win-win outcomes.

These principles are actively in play in China’s relationship with Africa. The tremendous growth of this relationship in the economic, socio-cultural, diplomatic and security domains are testament to the utility and value of the five principles.

Despite having one of the best and biggest military and the second biggest economy in the world, China has always respected the independence and autonomy of African countries and ensured mutually beneficial cooperation.

To date, China is Africa’s biggest trading partner and one of the continent’s biggest sources of much needed foreign direct investment that has contributed to economic growth and poverty eradication No African country has ever experienced military threats or coercion from China. The relationship has been far more fruitful than the continent’s relationship with the West, which is characterised by constant interference and lopsided cooperation.

As the Former French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin put it “now is the time to formulate (the five principles of peaceful coexistence) anew and share their spirit with all the world in line with the initiative of the community for a shared future proposed by President Xi Jinping”.

* David Monyae is the director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg

** The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The African