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The 'no meddling principle'

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James Reynolds | 12:17 UK time, Thursday, 8 May 2008

China's government swears by a pretty firm rule: each country is in charge of what happens inside its own borders - no one else should be allowed to interfere. Western diplomats call this the Westphalian principle (referring to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 which made respect for national sovereignty a key factor in international affairs).

That's a bit of a mouthful - so it might be easier and simpler to call it the "no meddling" principle.

Here's a question, then. Where does China's "no meddling" principle stand when it comes to what's happening in Burma at the moment? If Burma's rulers don't want to open their borders to outside aid, should China (and other countries) simply ignore the generals, do some meddling, and try to get in anyway?

UN aid bound for Burma is loaded onto a Russian aircraft in United Arab EmiratesFrance has called on the UN to deliver aid without waiting for a yes from Burma's military rulers (by invoking the UN's "responsibility to act" clause which allows aid to be delivered, and borders to be breached, if a government fails to act).

But, for China, this goes a bit far. I've just come back from a briefing at the Chinese foreign ministry where the spokesman, Qin Gang, gave China's position: "Assistance should follow the principle of equality and mutual respect. We should respect Myanmar's sovereignty. We should also have patient communication with Myanmar."

ie - no meddling - Burma's rulers should be allowed to set the pace of the relief effort.

Qin Gang carried on: "We hope Myanmar will cooperate with the international community. We hope Myanmar will overcome the disaster at an early date. China is ready to provide assistance to Myanmar whenever it needs."

In defence of this approach, China would point out that its decision to engage with Burma's rulers has paid off. A first plane carrying $500,000 of supplies from China arrived in Rangoon on Wednesday. China has also offered a further $4.8m in emergency aid (by comparison China donated about $63m following the Asian tsunami in December 2004.)

Still, it's clear that China's not about to approve an unapproved humanitarian invasion of Burma.

Westphalia rules.

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