Conflict prevention in the 21st century

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Convergence of outlook and approach

At the most fundamental level of international outlook there is arguably a significant impasse between the two countries. China remains committed, at least rhetorically, to its long-standing principle of non-interference outside its borders. In contrast the UK has, at least from a historical perspective, been quicker and keener to exert political and often military force overseas in a proactive manner. The cloud of controversy surrounding recent UK and Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Libya in particular, has even rendered 'conflict prevention' a difficult term for Chinese interlocutors.

In more practical terms, within the UNSC this difference can be seen in different interpretations of how the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle should be implemented. Guiding the implementation of R2P are three 'pillars': •The primary responsibility for protecting populations residing with the State. •The responsibility of the international community to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility. • The obligation of the international community to take collective action (including force as a last resort) if a State manifestly fails to protect its population.

Whereas both sides are unequivocally committed to the principle that populations should be protected from mass atrocity crimes, the main point of departure between them concerns the implementation of the third pillar, particularly when this involves the use of force. This is not to say that China is opposed to the use of force where there is a civilian protection mandate in all cases, but it has set the bar high in terms of the criteria to be met in justifying force, and has tended to focus on the first two pillars in policy terms.

The case of Libya has been particularly damaging for international consensus. Following unanimity at the UN in 2011 on the use of limited force (seen by some as the high-water mark for R2P), China (together with others) felt that the US, UK and France significantly overstepped the mandate when they subsequently directed action towards regime change. The fact that Chinese businesses in Libya were particularly exposed, and lost significant investments in the ensuing chaos, further aggravated the situation. Significant trust was lost within the UNSC.

However, the fact that China and the UK have since committed to work together to address mutual security concerns indicates that trust between the UK and China in this realm is being re-established. This can perhaps be attributed to movement on both sides.

The UK is undoubtedly going through a period of policy reflection following the failure of the Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya interventions to bring about greater stability. One apparent shift is towards the 'securitization of development', with international development work increasingly being driven by UK national security priorities. The CPWG debated the risks inherent in this including, among others, a focus on short-term security priorities at the cost of a reduced focus on both the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable, and longer-term developmental objectives. The flip-side of this is that with an ever-increasing focus on directing development resources towards fragile and conflict-affected states there is clearly an increasing recognition of the importance of upstream conflict prevention – or the first and second pillars within the R2P doctrine – which could be viewed as a move towards the Chinese position. Ongoing debates at time of writing about action in Syria demonstrate that this is, however, a continuing discussion.

As identified earlier in this report China is, relatively speaking, working in a policy vacuum when it comes to conflict prevention, with the 'non-interference' doctrine seemingly preventing any comprehensive consideration of conflict prevention strategy. The CPWG, however, identified areas where China was "learning through doing"40and reflected on the increasing pressures on the government to take a more proactive stance in support of increasing economic interests and the safety of its nationals. There is little by way of established public policy to point to that, which demonstrates increasing convergence except, perhaps, for an increasing focus on development cooperation, where commitments have increased significantly in recent years.

China, in common with the UK, clearly recognizes the link between poverty and instability. The CPWG reflected on different approaches, with the UK tending towards the 'golden thread' argument that sees peace, governance and the establishment of strong institutions as prerequisites to economic development, whereas China tends towards the argument that economic development leads to longer-term peace. The CPWG concluded that that there was evidence to support both arguments, and noted that in the practical delivery of development programmes on the ground choices were rarely so clear-cut. CPWG members also recognized that – if approached in a positive way and with effective cooperation at the country level – there was clear potential for greater complementarily between Chinese and UK development efforts. The UK enthusiasm for the AIIB also perhaps demonstrates a new-found belief, in line with China, that infrastructure development – done well – can be considered a global 'good' and a key foundation for stability and growth. There is, finally, evidence that China (as a label for a multiplicity of different – largely economic – actors) is becoming a more self-reflective development actor, with attention increasing in policy circles to the potential negative impact of under-regulated Chinese economic development that is insensitive to conflict contexts.

The CPWG therefore concluded – albeit tentatively – that there is currently a positive trajectory when it comes to outlook and approach, which can be capitalized upon. This is clearly subject to change given the tendency for policy in this area to shift in line with world events.

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