Conflict prevention in the 21st century

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Recent trends

China is playing an increasingly proactive role in crisis diplomacy and mediation. This has been evident in South Sudan where it has become actively involved in the ongoing Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)-led peace process. Similarly, the Chinese Government has become involved in refereeing talks between the Government of Myanmar and rebel groups such as the Kachin Independence Organization and has appointed a Special Envoy on Asian Affairs, Wang Yingfan, to manage diplomatic efforts to support peace. In Afghanistan, China has according to some sources facilitated talks between the Government and the Taliban. It has appointed a Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Sun Yuxi, in July 2014 and has worked trilaterally in China-US-Afghanistan and China-Pakistan-Afghanistan initiatives to help promote peace and prevent a return to conflict.

There has also been an increase in Chinese overseas development aid. This has taken the form of grants, interest-free loans, concessional loans, contributions to debt relief and provisions of humanitarian assistance, technical assistance, training, and medical teams. At the UN Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015, President Xi announced that China will establish a new US$2 billion South-South cooperation assistance fund – due to increase to $12 billion by 2030– to help developing counties to meet the SDGs. Alongside this significant increase in aid volume, there are indications that China is beginning to develop a more nuanced policy approach in this area. China is recognizing, perhaps, the need to develop the expertise necessary to understand development needs more comprehensively and evaluate the impact of its interventions. In relation to overseas aid in support of conflict prevention activities (particularly upstream), China was not a leading supporter of the incorporation of Goal 16, which sets targets for "peaceful and inclusive societies", within the SDGs; but neither, ultimately, did it object to its inclusion. Furthermore, as has recently been highlighted, many of the principles underlying Goal 16 targets are now enshrined within the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) statements and commitments. In Afghanistan, the Chinese Government has provided a range of development aid in what it has described as an attempt to inhibit the country's role as a "breeding ground for extremist groups". In doing so, it has sought to address the root causes of conflict by assisting in livelihood projects and aid programmes, including the provision of 500 million yuan to build affordable housing. It has committed to providing a total of 1.5 billion yuan in grants to Afghanistan within three years.

Infrastructure development is another growing priority for Chinese engagement overseas. It has been claimed that in June 2015 over 3,800 kilometers of railway and 4,300 kilometers of road had either been built or were under construction in Africa with Chinese financing. While the incentive for such investment in physical infrastructure is not necessarily to prevent conflict, it is recognized that investment can have a positive effect on conflict dynamics, especially in areas where the lack of infrastructure marginalizes communities and inhibits state presence and access to services and employment. However, there are also examples of Chinese investment in infrastructure fuelling localized conflict dynamics when it is not conflict sensitive, and such large-scale investment in the absence of adequate domestic regulatory frameworks – and where the state itself is a conflict actor – risks entrenching corrupt and divisive elite power structures at a national level. Given that loan funding for infrastructure development is largely tied to the use of Chinese contractors, commercial incentives also clearly come into play.

At present, most of China's engagement in conflict prevention tends to be at the multilateral level, and most notably through the UN. It has participated in UN peacekeeping operations for 25 years, and currently provides the most troops to UN peacekeeping missions of all permanent members of the UNSC. In September 2015 Xi Jinping committed to build a further UN peacekeeping standby force of 8,000 troops.

China also values engagement with regional bodies such as the AU. Its commitment to the AU is demonstrated by the $100 million-worth of free military aid in the next five years which Beijing pledged to support the building of the African Standby Force and the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis in September 2015. The FOCAC, a platform designed to build official dialogue and partnership between China and African states, is increasingly prioritizing the discussion of peace and security issues. In the current FOCAC Action Plan (2013–2015) China and Africa have committed to cooperate to help Africa become more peaceful by coordinating policies and working together in peacekeeping operations, capacity building, post-conflict reconstruction and preventive diplomacy. This was reiterated in the December 2015 FOCAC Johannesburg Summit, during which President Xi pledged to continue to participate in UN peacekeeping missions in Africa and support the capacity building of African states in areas such as defense and counter-terrorism.

The future direction of Chinese conflict prevention policy

China will likely become more involved in conflict prevention as its global footprint continues to grow. The protection of its overseas assets and nationals is a clear driver of foreign policy change in this direction. China's security strategies have shifted from an emphasis on military security to a more comprehensive security. China's pragmatic adaptation of the concept of non-interference, in what has been termed 'creative involvement', has allowed it to engage in mediation and shuttle diplomacy. This apparent reinterpretation of its policy of non-interference has enabled China to go beyond its traditional role of only engaging in dialogue with government actors and to start to engage – albeit on an incremental, ad hoc basis – with non-state actors and opposition groups, as has been the case in Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar. Creative involvement envisages the proactive use of diplomatic, military and commercial routes together, and can also involve sending humanitarian and poverty relief teams abroad. It emphasizes that rather than pursuing Western-style policies, Chinese engagement should be cautious, creative and constructive. It seems unlikely that the formal rhetoric of non-intervention will fade from Chinese policy statements in the near future, given its important role as a legitimizing tool for the government, and attraction for South-South diplomacy. But the trend towards a more flexible interpretation when it comes to operational sing foreign policy now seems well established, and the growth in Chinese overseas development (whether or not directly intended for conflict prevention purposes) is evident.

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