It’s a cornerstone of China’s foreign policy, invoked vehemently whenever critics challenge its human rights record or its policy towards Taiwan: Don’t interfere in another country’s internal affairs.
Yet today, as China strives to broaden its role in the world and maintain security on its heavily Muslim western reaches, it’s squarely behind a global anti-terrorism coalition that appears ready to interfere in Afghanistan in the most fundamental of ways.
But it is also wary of seeing the United States too firmly in control, especially if that means an American military presence in nearby Central Asia.
Within a day of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, China’s president Jiang Zemin had called US president George Bush to express sympathy and offer help.
China ratified a United Nations Security Council resolution broadly endorsing an American response and promised to share intelligence with Washington.
Chinese media has brimmed with denunciations of terrorism and details of leaders’ meetings about the problem. ‘‘I felt such pain in my heart when I saw the familiar World Trade towers collapse,’’ the official Xinhua News Agency quoted foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan as saying.
At the same time, China is making clear it expects any major military action to be multilateral and to involve the United Nations especially the Security Council, where China, as one of five permanent members, holds veto power.
‘‘The United Nations is the international organisation with widest representation. It has a unique role to play in this issue,’’ foreign ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said last week.
As China shapes its stance, several matters come into play the least of which seems to be its bumpy relationship with the United States, which many say has both been abruptly stabilised and pushed towards the sidelines by the terrorist attack.
‘‘The Americans are not going to be as interested in East Asia as they were before September 11, and nothing untoward is going to happen in East Asia except that China is going to keep moving toward becoming the superpower of the future,’’ said Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback: The Costs And Consequences Of American Empire.
Topping the list of Beijing’s concerns is its effort to contain a separatist movement in its northwestern Xinjiang region, a heavily Muslim area that shares borders with both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Reports that some ethnic Uighur separatists in the region may be linked to Osama bin Laden can only worry China.
The government also worries about what an American military operation in Afghanistan might mean for China’s influence in Central Asia.
US forces already have bases in South Korea and Japan. A similar presence on China’s western frontier would hardly be welcome, even by Beijing’s moderates.
‘‘The Chinese will view that presence as encirclement,’’ said Andrew Nathan, a Columbia University political scientist and co-author of The Great Wall And The Empty Fortress: China’s Search for Security.
But Beijing clearly sees an opportunity to stake out a moral position and pick up some capital in the international community, which has long criticised its human rights policies and harsh response to dissent.
In one recent briefing, Zhu suggested the United States now might better understand what the Chinese government has been dealing with for years in Xinjiang.
‘‘If somebody else controlled Xinjiang, they would be within 600 miles of Beijing,’’ Nathan said. ‘‘I would not advocate learning from the Chinese, but you have to have a heightened sense of their frustration in fighting this type of movement.’’
Secretary of State Colin Powell implicitly acknowledged as much. ‘‘They have their own problem with terrorism,’’ he said.
Whatever ultimately happens in Central Asia, though, China could benefit.
If US attacks root out bin Laden and his al-Qaida network, that could reduce the threat of Islamic radicalisation in Xinjiang and China, as a vocal part of the international effort, could take credit.
‘‘If everybody in the world gangs up against somebody, there’s no problem,’’ said David Goodman, director of the Institute for International Studies at the University of Technology-Sydney in Australia.
If American forces fail, China retains great influence in the region. And if the United States gets mired in an extended conflict, China has the potential to gain international stature by acting as a comparatively neutral third party concerned with the region’s future.
For now, international solidarity rules the day.
‘‘The Chinese Government fully understands the situation within the States,’’ said Jin Canrong, an expert on the United States at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
‘‘Politically, we are fully supportive of them. From the Chinese perspective, what we’re concerned mostly about is if the US overreacts.’’