Conflict prevention in the 21st century

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The end of the cold war marked the beginning of a new era in international conflict management and prevention, with many of the protocols and treaties that govern the international order having been drawn up in a different context to that in which the world now found itself. By the beginning of the 21st century, new and challenging conflict factors were emerging. Globalization of trade and communications has broken down territorial and virtual borders allowing previously restricted threats to spread unhindered. The growth in the numbers of non-state armed groups driven by grievances stemming from political and economic exclusion, ideology and often criminal commercial enterprise introduced a new challenge, partly by virtue of the scale of the growth, but also because there are few international protocols for dealing with the non-state 'sector', which has syndicated across and within continents.

The change in the world order has also brought new opportunities for countries to develop both economically and politically. However, these new opportunities have created new imbalances in power, wealth and prosperity. These have in certain cases created conflict and fragility, and – given the increasing multiplicity of interests–placed growing demands on external actors to cooperate to mitigate this. In this changed environment, the great powers of the Cold War, particularly the US and European partners, have struggled to contain threats in their traditional areas of interest. Alongside this, and partly resulting from failed efforts to prevent conflict, there is a declining appetite for engagement in conflict management among Western actors.

In parallel, China, as the major emerging power, is expanding trade relationships to fuel its growing economy. These relationships are often cultivated in areas affected by conflict. As a result, China has found itself embroiled in situations that oblige it to play a more proactive role in addressing immediate operational security challenges. Long-term conflict prevention, however, remains a relatively undeveloped area of Chinese foreign policy, and there is limited discussion about how China's growing role overseas can at the same time support greater peace and security.

The United Nations (UN) has acknowledged that "the international community is failing at preventing conflict". Yet the benefits of resolving, managing and containing crises and disputes before they escalate into violent conflict are obvious, not only in terms of minimizing widespread devastation and human costs but also because of the devastating impact of conflict on political, social and economic development, which can lead to the destabilization of whole regions. From an economic perspective, investing in conflict prevention is also considerably cheaper than responding to conflict after it has broken out. A lack of effective international cooperation is a key contributor to this failing. New ways of cooperating across old 'boundaries', ideological or territorial, are needed if states are to cope with the increasing number of security challenges that threaten their interests and the global community.

This report is one of the main outputs of a two-year 'track two' dialogue process between China and the UK on conflict prevention. It presents the views of a Conflict Prevention Working Group (CPWG), composed of Chinese and UK policy experts. It aims to raise awareness of the ways in which both China and the UK approach conflict prevention and support peace in conflict-affected and fragile states. It analyses the policies, practices and capacity gaps of both countries as an essential starting point for potential cooperation in the future. The report also explores whether the coordination of Chinese and UK efforts towards a more joined-up approach to conflict prevention is desirable, realistic, and/or feasible.

With this focus on conflict-affected and fragile states, the dialogue was able to avoid focusing on some of the ongoing international tensions at the geopolitical level, such as the current territorial disagreements in the South China Sea. These tensions impinge on relations with some of China's near neighbors in the Asia Pacific region, and the United States in particular. Dialogue and action is clearly needed to prevent conflict in this context. While not totally disconnected from some of these issues, the UK has significant geographic and political distance from them, which has prevented them from becoming stumbling blocks within this particular endeavor.

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