- China’s economic development, connectivity and trade needs – especially along the path of the Belt and Road Initiative – drive Chinese engagement in conflict and post-conflict settings.
- The closer that fragile countries are to China and the more important economic and security factors are, the more willing China is to use its influence and adopt a more interventionist approach. This is either through special envoys or setting the table for peace talks.
- As China becomes more involved in countries where peace is fragile, there is a need to seek common ground for cooperation between the West and China that will help to better safeguard the interests of both and, most of all, the interests of people affected by conflict. The BRI provides a potential confluence of these interests.
China’s engagement in conflict settings – what drives it?
Over the past two decades, China has increased its presence and influence across many conflict-affected parts of the world. It has gone through a gradual process of reconciling old pillars of foreign policy – particularly those of non-interference and state sovereignty – with the need to ensure the safety of its assets and nationals overseas and with the pressure from the international community to play a more active role in the management and prevention of conflict. Through shuttle diplomacy, peacekeeping and development projects, China has increasingly engaged in crisis diplomacy, conflict mediation, UN peace operations and post-conflict reconstruction in countries including Afghanistan, Congo DRC, Mali, Myanmar, Sudan and South Sudan.
As explored in a new PeaceRep report, the main factor driving China’s engagement in conflict and post-conflict settings is the pursuit of natural resources and improved access to markets, especially along the path of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Other drivers – including internal security concerns, geopolitics, and the responsibility to protect Chinese citizens abroad – may gain prominence in varying contexts, especially in China’s periphery. On the whole, however, China’s main motivation in regions of conflict and instability is its own development, connectivity and trade needs.
“Chinese solutions” to conflict
China’s vision of addressing violent conflicts and security challenges differs substantially from those of Western countries. The concepts of peacemaking and peacebuilding are not fully accepted in China at the official level and are rarely found in speeches by Chinese officials. Although not codified in any official document, a number of “Chinese solutions” and approaches underpin China’s engagement in conflict areas.
Rather than pursuing peace, China seeks stability, especially in contexts where it has major financial and geostrategic interests. Projecting its own domestic experiences, China sees attempts to promote good governance and human rights as premature or obstructive to the aim of securing stability. From China’s perspective, stability is contingent on a strong state authority.
The closer that fragile countries are to China and, therefore, the more important economic and security factors are, the more willing China is to use its influence and adopt a more interventionist approach.
In contrast to Western-led “liberal peace” concepts—with their focus on good governance and protection of political rights – the Chinese “developmental peace” (发展和平, fāzhǎn hépíng) concept considers economic development as the crucial precondition of a sustainable internal peace. Here, civil and political rights are theoretically an outcome of – but not the means to promote – economic growth.
China repeatedly calls for local solutions to local problems, favouring regional organisations’ role in peace initiatives. In South Sudan, for example, China supports the mediation efforts of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). In China’s view the responsibility for resolving conflicts is held by those directly affected, while outside forces can only play a secondary role. However, emphasis on indigenous ownership of peace initiatives and the pursuit of local solutions is also accompanied by China’s efforts to promote its own discourse power.
China emphasises the pursuit of a multi-polar world order, which breaks from the liberal international order led by the United States and where an increasing number of countries are connected more strongly to China and its national interests. This intersects with how China views Western “meddling” as the cause of much instability in Africa, the Middle East and other regions.
China is historically against sanctions and other restrictive measures, which it equates to interference in other countries’ domestic affairs. Instead, it favours diplomatic persuasion and compromise. In the UNSC, it has often aligned with Russia in opposing sanctions against a range of countries including Ethiopia, North Korea, Myanmar, Sudan and Syria.
The closer that fragile countries are to China and, therefore, the more important economic and security factors are, the more willing China is to use its influence and adopt a more interventionist approach. The situations on the Korean Peninsula, Afghanistan and Myanmar are of much greater concern to China in comparison to conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. The concern that instability in neighbouring countries may spill over into its territory – in particular the provinces of Xinjiang and Yunnan – leads China to a more pro-active role in its periphery. However, in far-away countries where economic and security interests are at stake, China has proved willing to pursue more interventionist policies, for example in Sudan and South Sudan, where since 2007 China has positioned itself as a peacemaker.
A Chinese discourse power
China’s vision of its role in global governance is largely at odds with liberal peacemaking and peacebuilding. This is exemplified by China’s effort to construct a community of shared future for mankind, which aims to make the international environment more amenable to China’s governance model and national interests. In pursuing this, China prioritises its “developmental peace” model that challenges Western peacemaking and peacebuilding in so far as economic, development and stability initiatives take precedence over initiatives promoting good governance, rule of law, democracy, or respect for political and social rights.
China is not trying to impose its governance system on other countries. However, there is evidence that China promotes a “Chinese solutions discourse” which hinges on the superiority of the Chinese model and the applicability of Chinese practices in other settings. Chinese policy makers and analysts often point to the post-Mao model of governance and development under one-party rule as more effective at achieving stability than Western-style democracy. It’s fair to say that without force or coercion, China promotes and soft-sells its model.
The implications of the war in Ukraine
Set against growing geopolitical contestation, with increased global food and energy insecurity and shifting security and political priorities, China’s approaches to conflict management may also vary. Rising tensions with the US have driven Moscow and Beijing closer together – just weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping declared that their countries’ partnership had “no limits”. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February was based on several misconceptions, which were most likely shared by China. Both expected a quick offensive followed by a Ukrainian surrender, perceiving the West to be divided and unlikely to impose strong sanctions against Russia. This outcome would have damaged the credibility of the US and NATO and strengthened the Russia-China partnership.
However, the unexpected consequences of the conflict have raised the stakes for China. The US is doubling down in the Indo-Pacific, evidenced by the rhetoric used at the last Shangri-La Dialogue; Europe is increasingly worried about dependence on the Chinese market and supply chains; in China, soaring food and energy prices are increasing the cost-of-living and are damaging China’s economic outlook. All these negative factors are testing how “unlimited” the partnership with Russia really is. Since the war’s outset, China has sought to portray itself as a neutral actor, calling for peace while blaming the situation on the US. It has refused to condemn Russia, and Chinese media has amplified Russia’s propaganda. Simultaneously, China has not provided material support to Russia, nor helped it circumvent sanctions – it has also not enabled an alternative to SWIFT for Russia’s Central Bank.
As the conflict in Ukraine continues, this balancing act will become more difficult. International calls for China to mediate a cessation of hostilities illustrate the precedent of China’s crisis diplomacy and mediation history. Although it is unlikely that China will fulfil this role, its potential as part of a wider geopolitical management of conflict should not be discarded, especially if a United Nations Security Council resolution, or statement, or any parallel mechanisms, may create an international framework for negotiations and commitments. When a settlement emerges, it might be in China’s interest to exert its influence over Russia to facilitate a geopolitical agreement.
Strengths and weaknesses of Chinese conflict management
China has many assets it can deploy in conflict societies: the ability to mobilise economic resources and implement ambitious programmes translates into political influence; when it intervenes, it brings significant leverage to mediation efforts; the lack of historical/colonial baggage allows China to find many supporters across Africa, parts of Asia and the Middle East where it is sometimes perceived as more neutral than other mediators; skilfully tailored humanitarian assistance and vaccine diplomacy support China’s diplomatic and geopolitical goals; and China has also shown increased willingness and capacity to engage in UN peace operations.
However, there are also weaknesses in China’s model of conflict management that will inevitably push China to adopt an incremental approach to implementing its strategies. China is a relatively new global peace and security actor, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry has limited resources. Specific expertise on, for example, Africa and the Middle East is underdeveloped, while conflict management is still a nascent discipline. Lastly, during COVID, China has isolated itself, and now faces the challenge of when and how to reopen.
China’s approach towards peace differs significantly from that of the West. Nevertheless, China remains a driver of global growth and, amidst a changing world order, it will likely become more involved in countries where peace is fragile. Therefore, from a peacemaking and peacebuilding perspective, there is a need to seek common ground for cooperation between the West and China that will help to better safeguard the interests of both and, crucially, the interests of people at the receiving end of conflict and fragility around the world.
The BRI provides a potential confluence of interests. China invests a great deal in the BRI, which has significant transformative potential for conflict environments where Western countries are also engaged. For China, the business viability of the BRI is linked to greater peace and stability in the countries it passes through. There is a need to continue to study how this initiative is transforming conflict environments. This is crucial for a better understanding of how Chinese interventions affect peace and conflict dynamics, as well as for deriving practical suggestions for how Chinese, Western and local actors can coordinate between each other to address conflict.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.
Thanks are due to the PeaceRep programme funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, for support to write this piece.