Conflict prevention in the 21st century

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Executive summary

A number of Chinese and UK experts in conflict prevention, termed the 'Conflict Prevention Working Group' or CPWG, were brought together intermittently over a two-year period for a series of exchanges and debates. The three thematic pillars of crisis diplomacy, early warning and response, together with upstream conflict prevention from the UK Government's Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS) were used as an initial framework for this dialogue. A number of country case studies were also featured. This report attempts to summarize the discussions and draw from them tentative conclusions about the viability of a closer partnership between China and the UK in this area.

Conflict prevention means different things among the policy and academic community in the UK and in China. In the UK, discussions about conflict prevention tend to extend quite widely into the areas of peace building and international development in general. In China, on the other hand, when talking about conflict prevention many interlocutors focus exclusively on the question of armed intervention and the role of the UN Security Council (UNSC). Mistrust at this level following recent controversial interventions by Western powers (in Libya in particular) therefore tends to cloud the debate, and made for a challenging initial backdrop to the work of the CPWG.

Given this uncertain starting point the prospects of the group finding immediate and very practical entry points for the 'conflict prevention partnership' between China and the UK aspired to in the 2010 BSOS were slim. As a result, the dialogue tended to focus on where policy convergence and parallel interests could be identified with a view to assessing the overall trajectory, and to establish whether there was any momentum towards a partnership to build on.

The CPWG recognized that policy and/or approaches to conflict prevention overseas are shifting both in the UK and China, and that this is leading in very general terms to greater convergence of outlook. From a UK perspective this shift is evident in the emphasis now placed on conflict prevention within the last two Strategic Defense and Security Reviews (2010 and 2015), the first of which led to the development of the BSOS itself. The extent to which UK overseas development assistance is being increasingly focused on conflict-affected and fragile states is further evidence of renewed focus. In terms of Chinese policy 'non-interference' remains an important philosophical starting point for China's foreign affairs. However, increasing engagement overseas, particularly in the economic sphere, is leading to greater flexibility and pragmatism. Phrases such as 'constructive engagement' and 'creative involvement' are being developed to explain these more politically nuanced approaches in the conflict prevention arena. So at a time when the UK is increasingly attempting to be more proactive in preventing conflict so as to avoid the need for direct intervention, China's expanding engagement overseas is forcing policy makers to think through similar issues.

The CPWG also identified a growing overlap of overseas interests between China and the UK. For example, the group discussed approaches in different countries in Africa at some length. The group saw the potential for greater collaboration between the UK –a major established donor to many countries – and China, given the latter's significant recent rise in political and economic engagement on the continent. Increasing UK interest in the 'Belt and Road Initiative' and joint interests in the stability of many conflict-prone regions that feature within the broad areas covered by this initiative were also discussed.

The CPWG also looked at modalities and differing incentives for engagement. The UK's pursuit of partnership with China in this area can be clearly understood in terms of China's increasing global influence and the UK's overriding desire to extend and uphold a 'rules-based international system'. The incentives for China to partner specifically with the UK in this area are less clear. Nonetheless, it was recognized that the China-UK bilateral relationship was strong and growing, and that a rapidly developing economic relationship could form the basis for greater cooperation in other areas.

The conclusions were therefore generally optimistic. There is value in both sides continuing to explore the possibilities for more practical future cooperation. Continuing dialogue at different levels to enhance mutual understanding and further build trust was seen to be critical. At the formal level simple exchanges of information between Chinese and UK institutions operating within unstable regions and countries were seen as an obvious and fairly uncontroversial first step.

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