Conflict prevention in the 21st century

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Overlap of interests

A conflict prevention partnership relies not only on increasing policy convergence but also parallel interests.


Peace and security within Africa is a priority for both China and the UK. China's recent economic expansion in Africa has been the subject of considerable debate and discussion. China is Africa's largest trade partner as well as a significant source of investment. Although some have characterized China's model as being one based on resource extraction, with little investment in value-adding services on the continent, this is evolving over time as both Chinese enterprises and Chinese policy makers become more engaged. China now has considerable investments tied up in different African countries – and even with, in many cases, the African resources themselves in place as a relatively risk-free collateral for loans, China has a lot to lose though instability.

As the former colonial power in many cases, the UK has long and deep connections with the African continent, and remains a significant trading partner and investor. The UK's bilateral aid programme has retained a strong focus in many African countries. The UK has been concerned about the rise of extremist groups across certain countries and their ability and intent to launch attacks in the UK. Migration to the UK from many African countries suffering from instability has been an additional source of political concern.

There are specific areas in which both countries have played an important role in preventing conflict and promoting stability – either directly or indirectly. Both are involved in peacekeeping operations across the continent – and both support the development of AU and regional capacity for peace-support operations. Both have been involved in the ongoing South Sudan peace process, in combating piracy off the coast of the Horn of Africa, and in providing relief to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

China and the UK have already recognized the value of working together within Africa, as acknowledged in the 2011 China-UK memorandum of understanding to enhance development cooperation and achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. More recently, a memorandum of understanding has been signed between DFID and the China Development Bank on enhancing the trade performance of African countries, and as noted above, the UK's 2015 SDSR also outlined its aim to build a deeper partnership with China on addressing global challenges that include economic development in Africa. For China to work with the UK in helping to prevent conflict in Africa it will be important that African countries are portrayed as partners in the process, rather than as aid recipients.

There is arguably relatively little from a geopolitical perspective that gets in the way of China and the UK collaborating more in Africa. Although both are engaged economically, there is no significant direct competition outside some of the target investment destinations such as South Africa and Nigeria. The CPWG concluded that this region offers significant potential for cooperation, particularly if effective modalities can be established which chime with China's existing and developing formal engagement with the continent, such as through the FOCAC and in supporting African countries to better implement the AU's Agenda 2063 and the global 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

Middle East

Increased violence and instability across the Middle East (including Yemen, Libya, Israel and Palestine) is a serious concern to both China and the UK. This is amplified by fears that extremist groups with global reach thrive on the insecurity in these regions. China has previously had to perform costly evacuations of its citizens as a result of instability, in Yemen in March 2015, and in Libya in 2011 and 2014. It also has growing economic ties with the region, which are likely to increase with the advancement of China's Belt and Road infrastructure development projects. China's Special Envoy to the Middle East, Ambassador Gong Xiaosheng, has indicated that China is committed to helping to stabilize the region, and has suggested that the Belt and Road Initiative could help to spur economic development and promote peace within the region. While the incentives for increased efforts to prevent conflict in Middle Eastern hotspots are clear, a China-UK partnership focusing on this geographic region is likely to present more challenges than it would in regions such as Africa, due to geopolitical sensitivities and history of controversial interventions in the region.

Belt and Road Initiative

The Belt and Road is a network of connectivity which has been promoted by the Chinese Government since 2013. The Silk Road Economic Belt is designed to provide land-based economic corridors linking China, Mongolia, Central Asia, Russia, the Middle East and Europe. The Maritime Silk Road adds greater connectivity by linking the South China Sea, the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. It goes beyond the physical infrastructure and promotes connectivity in terms of trade, investment, and flows of people – tourists, students and traders alike.

In 2015 the China-Britain Business Council and the FCO published a report 'One Belt One Road: a role for UK companies in developing China's new initiative, new opportunities in China and beyond', which voices the UK commitment to helping China to deliver on the Belt and Road Initiative, emphasizing their shared commitment to improving connectivity, growth, free trade and economic openness. The Belt and Road project provides new opportunities for the British business community. While predominantly economic in nature, the Belt and Road will have important geopolitical implications, and also expands through a number of conflict-affected and fragile regions.

The Chinese Government has made a point of making this a multilateral, if Chinese led, endeavor. As was seen by its early sign-up to the AIIB, the UK has been one of its biggest supporters, at least among Western powers. Both countries are therefore invested in the results. Both are keen to avoid the pitfalls of any insensitive Belt and Road development across fragile regions, and both could bring useful and complementary analysis and action to support the mitigation of such development.

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