Conflict prevention in the 21st century

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Cooperation modalities

The following section highlights some of the modalities that might bring about conflict prevention partnerships, given sufficient policy convergence and overlap of interests.

Bilateral cooperation

The CPWG has been supported to this point through funding made available under the China-UK Development Partnership. Given that this formal bilateral partnership has just been renewed, this seems like an obvious entry point for the development of a conflict prevention partnership.

The UK-China Strategic Dialogue can also support the development of a conflict prevention partnership. The bilateral dialogue is in the main focused on issues of direct bilateral concern: cooperation over cyber and other organized crime, illegal migration, bilateral trade and investment opportunities, among others. Current issues of mutual concern relating to the stability of other countries and regions are discussed in these forums, although the exchange seems to be limited to explaining respective positions.

What remains critical to maintaining forward momentum is a similar level of commitment on both sides. Following the recent high-level diplomacy between the two countries, there is a strong commitment to the strategic dialogue. However, the commitment from China to the Development Partnership appears a bit more uncertain. This may stem in part from a discernible unease on the part of Chinese policy makers in particular, identified through CPWG discussions, for bilateral discussion to extend to considerations of third countries or regions. Whether this stems from China's multipolar world viewpoint, or a resistance to be seen siding specifically with the UK, is perhaps a moot point. The consequence, however, is that there are clear philosophical obstacles to the bilateral dialogue evolving into a conflict prevention partnership that works together in third countries or regions.

What might begin to shift these obstacles in the medium to long term are clearer incentives on the part of Chinese actors to collaborate. At present – with policy in general driving narrow engagement with developing country governments, and a focus on capacity-building work driven by host government requests – there is little need for China to collaborate with other international development actors. The CPWG discussed whether there was a degree of inevitability about China eventually becoming more nuanced in its development cooperation. As China's commercial interests increase, so may the pressure to take a more active role in securing those interests. As the line between capacity building and reform becomes increasing blurred, the need to collaborate becomes more pronounced.

Regardless of this longer-term hypothesis, the CPWG identified greater information sharing and exchange between China and the UK at the country level as something that is likely to be beneficial to both sides. This is also uncontroversial, and could start straight away. One element of this could involve conducting joint analysis. Finding a common language and points of convergence between economic, diplomatic, developmental and security actors from both countries and the host state will present challenges, but the potential exists for this to lead to a meaningful trilateral engagement.

Multilateral cooperation

For a number of years, the UK has been pushing for greater emphasis on its holistically defined concept of conflict prevention within multilateral forums, and within the UNSC specifically. In November 2015, for example, the UK used its UNSC presidency to introduce a debate on 'Security, Development and the Root Causes of Conflict', led by Justine Greening, the UK Secretary of State for International Development. This emphasized the importance of addressing underlying causes of fragility and conflict, and advanced the idea that this would involve the international community "moving from peacekeeping to peace building".

For China, the UNSC has always been the right and proper place for consideration of its narrower interpretation of 'conflict prevention'. With regard to UN peace operations, China is a significant and growing contributor from a military perspective, and is increasingly taking more frontline roles (for example, in South Sudan and Mali) after many years of limiting its support to such missions to providing technical and medical detachments. However, the trust lost over the war in Libya, as discussed above, perhaps serves as an obstacle to China actively embracing the UK's more holistic approach at this level.

There are signs of movement towards increasing cooperation, however. The UK China Strategic Dialogue is already being used as a forum to help China and the UK to increase coordination and collaboration within multilateral forums such as the UN and G20, for example by facilitating discussion on Iran ahead of the UNSC meeting to adopt resolutions on Iran's nuclear programme. In the 2015 SDSR, the UK listed the difficulties in building consensus as a result of the erosion of the rules-based international order as a key challenge driving UK security policy, and explicitly stated that it would support China's integration into international organizations.

At the same time, the UN itself is going through a process of reviewing its approach to peace operations. In June 2015 a 'High-level Panel' Review Report recommended that the UN continue to strengthen its ability to undertake diplomatic and preventive political missions, elections support, human rights work, peacemaking and mediation support, and post-war peace building efforts. This suggests an increasing focus on conflict prevention activities to either complement or, ideally, pre-empt the need for military-led peacekeeping.

As China increasingly takes a frontline role in peacekeeping operations, the incentives for it to take a similarly frontline role within these expanding UN-led conflict prevention activities may also increase. This may represent another entry point for UK-China cooperation in this field, and would build on existing cooperation between China and the UK on peacekeeping.

The SDGs as a framework for cooperation

The adoption of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda in September 2015 brings with it an opportunity to rethink how conflict prevention and development are implemented, and to help revitalize a shared culture of conflict prevention within the international community. The agenda includes a focus on peace, including through Goal 16, which calls for the international community to "promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels". Given that both countries are actively committed to achievement of the SDGs, the new agenda could provide a platform, or at least a common language, around which cooperation could be built. Discussions within the CPWG highlighted that, while China was content to accept Goal 16 in the final 2030 Agenda because there is a recognition that development and security are interdependent, the Chinese view remains that the appropriate forum for discussing and responding to conflict and security issues is the UNSC. It will be interesting to see how far each country approaches the implementation of Agenda 2030 at the domestic level and how far it frames its overseas engagement.

People-to-people exchanges

The CPWG discussed a number of opportunities for China-UK cooperation on conflict prevention to develop beyond the governmental level.

Businesses from both countries are already active in many fragile and conflict-affected parts of the world. Both have experiences to share on working within these difficult contexts, where the need to work in a conflict-sensitive way is paramount. There are examples for both sides to learn from where businesses and the private sector in general have actively contributed both to conflict prevention and transformation.

The CPWG has been what could be described as a 'track two' dialogue mechanism. One of the clear findings from the exercise is that dialogue at this level on conflict prevention is both possible and also productive in terms of both improving mutual understanding and debating the merits of entry points at different levels. However, for these discussions to permeate the policy-making apparatus in both the UK and China in a meaningful and sustainable way there needs to be greater outreach and involvement of actors from a range of sectors, and improved entry points into official dialogue processes.

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