Conflict prevention in the 21st century

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2. China's approach to conflict prevention

The Chinese government, and indeed most Chinese actors, tend to avoid using the phrase 'conflict prevention' (or Chongtu Yufang, 冲突预防) other than within the context of the UNSC or other institutions (for example, the AU) which are considered to have legitimacy on matters of conflict and security. There is no clear-cut definition of conflict prevention from a Chinese perspective, and there is little consensus on what it means. Chinese hesitance to use the term is also linked to assumptions that conflict prevention has become synonymous with legitimizing military intervention and undermining state sovereignty. This does not, however, mean that they are against the principle of conflict prevention. Chinese Government representatives have, on numerous occasions, emphasized the need to address the root causes of conflict, and to invest in economic and social development to stabilize areas and encourage peace.

In the first position paper on UN reform by the Chinese Government in 2005, it was stated that "China supports the establishment of the 'prevention culture' by the UN and larger input into conflict prevention and mediation, especially the improvement of mechanisms and measures such as early warning and fact-finding mission".

Rationale for China's increased engagement in conflict prevention

China's interest in conflict prevention is increasing. There are a number of factors driving this change. First, as the country becomes a more prominent actor on the world stage there is more pressure from the international community for China to play a more proactive role in both the management and prevention of conflict. This includes pressure from both Western actors and conflict-affected or fragile states which have recognized China's increasing role, and value its contributions to enhancing peace and security.

Second, and particularly following the launch of China's 'going out strategy' in 2002 to promote Chinese investment overseas, Chinese businesses are in some cases operating in conflict-affected and fragile contexts. The need for protection for these increasing assets, and the subsequent impact on Chinese foreign policy, has been evident in, for example, South Sudan, where China is the largest investor, and where an estimated 120 Chinese enterprises operate. China is consequently engaging in the South Sudan peace process, and has contributed peacekeepers to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). In May 2014 China also secured the inclusion of the protection of oil workers within the UNMISS mandate. How China operates overseas, and the extent to which it works in a 'conflict-sensitive' way, is increasingly under the international spotlight. This has created pressure on the Chinese Government to adapt its approach.

Third, there is increasing domestic pressure on the Chinese Government to protect the growing numbers of Chinese citizens living, working, and visiting conflict-affected and fragile states. This pressure was evident after 2004 when 11 Chinese nationals were killed in Afghanistan, 3 were killed in Pakistan and 2 were killed in Sudan. Similarly, in 2011 there was another surge in pressure on the Chinese Government. In March of that year the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) were dispatched in their first non-combatant evacuation operation, to evacuate Chinese citizens from Libya as unrest surged within the country. Later that year, 13 Chinese sailors were killed on the borders of Myanmar and Thailand in an area notorious for drug smuggling. When photos of the bodies appeared on social media a public outcry compelled the Government to take action to better secure the region. As a result, China joined forces with Laos, Myanmar and Thailand to increase and coordinate security patrols and law enforcement within the region. Beijing is keen wherever possible to pre-empt this public pressure and anticipate need for more direct action. The responsibility to protect Chinese citizens was emphasized in a 2013 defense White Paper on 'The diversified employment of China's armed forces', and has been reiterated in the subsequent 2015 defense White Paper.

Finally, there is a concern about conflict and instability in neighboring countries spilling over into China. For example, ethnic conflict, misfired shells, and refugees from Myanmar have often spilled into China's border regions. This has prompted China to engage in diplomatic efforts and dialogue to help manage the conflict and prevent an escalation. There are also concerns about Central Asia, given the potential impact on China's domestic security of Islamist extremist groups from the region extending activities into the Chinese region of Xinjiang and/or providing support for Uighur separatist groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

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