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The concept of human rights has brought about a profound change in the foreign policy priorities of several nation-states. States have been ready to use human rights rhetoric in foreign policy statements and less often to act in ways consonant with those policies. They appropriate the concept of human rights and bent it to serve their own needs. Each state has developed a distinct approach to human rights in its foreign policy. China and India both being the world’s most populous nations, there is hardly any scholarly treatment of the impact of human rights on their foreign policies. This article reflects on how the practices of the China and India can nuance our understanding of the foreign policy priorities with special regard to human rights.
The concept of human rights has been officially embraced by a wide variety of nation-states but interpreted differently according to their convenience. Some countries insist on the primacy of economic rights while they reduce welfare provisions; others proclaim their adherence to an international code of human rights, even as they violate its premises in the name of national security. These are the ordinary hypocrisies and contradictions of state policies and, while it remains important to track and expose such opportunism, the challenge they pose is primarily political. However, this article takes on a prior task that is to explore the foreign policy priorities and the place of human rights among them in case of both China and India.
Foreign Policy Priorities and Human Rights
Under the best of circumstances, policy makers from any country must attempt to reconcile at least three competing priorities: national security, economic viability and moral authority. Each of these three dimensions of foreign policy typically has its own separate and conflicting logic. Security issues are most often seen in realist terms, assuming a world of anarchy and the inevitability of zero-sum games (e.g., I can gain only at your expense). Economic problems are usually addressed from quite a different perspective, assuming instead of opportunities for interdependence and mutual benefit in a struggle, inevitably positive-sum games over how the benefits are to be shared (e.g., we both gain; but each will try to get the bigger share). Finally, moral questions are typically perceived in terms of absolutist alternatives (e.g., good vs evil) – we might choose to coexist, to compete, or even to fight over who is right, but the outcome is rarely a compromise. (Satyanarayana, 2003)
These three dimensions of foreign policy also seem to represent a rough hierarchy of priorities: first security, then economics and finally questions of morality. If the state is threatened, national security takes precedence. Economic policy is reshaped to support national defence, and moral debate tends to be suspended for the national emergency. If, however, there is no major perceived threat to state security, then economic priorities take precedence. Finally, moral issues are most likely to receive priority in those countries, which perceive no military threat from any other state and which are economically well off (like G – 8). This is not necessarily the hierarchy of foreign policy priorities that one might prefer; rather, it is presented here as a general approximation of what seems to happen in response to changing world events. (Satyanarayana, 2003)
Human rights, however, cannot be treated in isolation with security and economic perspectives. In order to implement an effective and sustainable human rights policy, it must be designed in a way to complement security and economic concerns. Especially when considering that each of the three main dimensions of foreign policy is customarily treated in terms of separate logic, human rights like any moral foreign policy priority must be considered in terms of a broad concept of 'national interest'.
Chinese Approach to Human Rights Issues
The issue of human rights and democracy has perplexed China for more than a hundred years. The fact that this issue has not died out instead has become even more conspicuous with the passage of time indicates its bearing on China’s development and foundation. (Liu Qing, 1996) Broadly speaking there are two attitudes in China towards human rights and democracy. One is to view human rights as a product of the western culture; a value system that the West wants to impose on China which is not suitable to Chinese sentiments. (Yimga) The other regards human rights as a better social system for safeguarding human dignity and interests and also a way for China to avoid its past road of pain and suffering. (Liu Qing, 1996)
The international human rights regime accommodates official Chinese views which differ in important ways from the dominant Western ideas but have much in common with the position of their socialist counterparts. Chinese official jurisprudence views the rights not as ‘natural’ but as given by the state, to be limited and delimited by the law. China perceives the rights that are granted by their constitution not as limitations on the law but as goals whose realisation is to be spelled out in laws. They emphasise on the social and economic rights over civil and political rights. (Hansen, 1997)
From its ‘earliest days the People’s Republic of China (PRC) used human rights arguments to help justify its foreign policy, emphasising the rights of sovereignty and self-determination against colonial rule. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s China charged the United States and other Western powers with violating the rights to self-determination, independence and sovereignty of the people of Korea, Laos, Cambodia, South Vietnam, the Philippines, the Arab world, Latin America, Africa and Cyprus among other places. France was a frequent target for its policies in North Africa. It did not spare the Soviet Union either. China charged that the Khrushchev’s regime used the state machinery for repressing the working people. (Satyanarayana, 2003)