Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, walks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Indian Vice-President Hamid Ansari, centre, and Myanmar President Thein Sein in Beijing. Photo: AP
Beijing: Chinese President Xi Jinping deployed an unusual defence on Saturday of China's foreign and military policies: the celebration of an obscure, decades-old treaty called the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.
Alongside Myanmar's president and India's vice-president, Mr 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 US leaders over China's recent territorial claims.
In a speech about the principles, Mr Xi outlined China's basic framework for foreign policy. Much of his speech stressed China's peaceful nature and focused on the concept of non-interference in the affairs of other countries. But Mr 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 neighbours 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 stand-off 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 defence identification zone over disputed islands. The United States, Japan's ally, promptly responded by sending two bombers through the zone.
Meanwhile, US attempts to pivot military and diplomatic attention from the Middle East towards Asia have elicited one consistent response from China: butt out of Asian affairs. Without naming the US, Mr Xi made pointed remarks on the doomed policies of any country seeking to impose its will on others.
Some of Mr 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," Mr Xi said.
The speech was one of the few major domestic addresses open to foreign news media that Mr 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 Myanmar, then known as Burma. The principles can be summarised as mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in one another's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.
China has chosen to highlight the five principles precisely because of the disputes with its neighbours, said Ji Qiufeng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University.
The principles' peaceful goals are the essence of foreign relations, Mr 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, Mr Ji summed up Mr Xi's basic point.
"For the disputes in the South China Sea, the problem is not with China. It's with the other countries," he said.