Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from a new Peaceworks Report, “China and the Reshaping of Global Conflict Prevention Norms.” Watch the September 14, 2023 launch event of this report.
As the United States enters a “post-Afghanistan era” and with great power competition on the rise, questions abound about the role of the world’s major powers, and the multilateral institutions they lead, in preventing conflict. Many of these questions are rightly being asked about the People’s Republic of China (hereafter the PRC or China). As it has become a more powerful and influential actor — economically, politically and militarily — China has demonstrated growing interest in playing a larger role in preventing international conflict through both multilateral and bilateral frameworks. To date, little attention has been given to China’s activities in this area, a gap in understanding our forthcoming report is designed to help fill.
China has taken a number of steps, particularly over the last decade since the beginning of Xi Jinping’s tenure as the country’s paramount leader, to position itself as a source of international leadership and insight about how to mitigate the risk of conflict and instability around the world. Examples of recent Chinese actions include the following:
- Engaging in conflict mediation efforts in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sudan and the Great Lakes region of East Africa
- Establishing its first overseas military base in Djibouti
- Promoting Xi’s signature foreign policy undertaking, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as a preventive diplomacy tool
- Creating the $200 million United Nations Peace and Development Trust Fund and its Secretary-General’s Peace and Security Sub-Fund
- Showcasing its capabilities in reducing the risks of so-called color revolutions to Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) members
- Reaching agreements with Solomon Islands allowing for the provision of Chinese security forces to support the nation’s social order and law enforcement
- Releasing a position paper on the political settlement of Russia’s war in Ukraine
- Hosting talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran that culminated in a joint statement announcing the resumption of Saudi-Iran diplomatic relations
Over the course of 2022, even as the country remained on virtual lockdown as part of its “zero COVID” policy, China introduced several additional regional initiatives. In January, for example, China proposed a new peace effort for the Horn of Africa in its “Outlook for Peace and Development in the Horn of Africa,” and, in June, China sponsored a two-day peace conference aimed at stabilizing the region. The conference, which included the participation of senior officials from seven East African nations, resulted in a joint statement and action plan pledging deeper cooperation among the participants to resolve regional security challenges. The following month, the second annual China-Africa Peace and Security Forum featured remarks by then PRC defense minister and member of the Central Military Commission General Wei Fenghe and was attended by 50 ministerial and other senior-level officials from African national governments and the African Union.
China’s positions on international conflict also attracted attention in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, especially as only weeks before Russia’s “special military operation” the two nations declared that their partnership had “no limits.” However, hopes that these close ties might provide the basis for China to act as peacemaker early in the conflict were dashed; China’s official statements and state media amplified Russian rationalizations for its war against Ukraine, while Beijing did little to resolve the conflict. Indeed, Beijing’s approach to the Ukraine crisis has thrown into even sharper relief the complexity and contradictions of China’s positions and interests when it comes to conflict and conflict prevention. Since Russia’s invasion, China has repeatedly underscored its commitment to sovereignty and territorial integrity and its rejection of the use of force, also stating that it supports Ukraine’s sovereignty. Yet, more than a year into the conflict, Beijing had not condemned Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine and had made it clear that it saw U.S. and NATO behavior as the catalyst for Russia’s attack. Efforts by Kyiv to engage Beijing went unanswered until April 2023, while ties between Beijing and Moscow apparently deepened, with China increasing imports of Russian energy and Xi Jinping traveling to Moscow in March 2023 to affirm the Sino-Russian strategic partnership.
Moreover, the Global Security Initiative (GSI) launched by Xi Jinping at the April 2022 Boao Forum and described in February 2023 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a “concept paper” is long on declaratory principles about the need for a new approach to international security but short on substance. Although the GSI comprises themes consistent in many respects with thinking China has promoted for decades, it includes some concepts that are hard to reconcile with China’s stated positions on sovereignty, territorial integrity and the use of force. For example, it refers to the idea of “indivisible security,” a term Beijing had not emphasized so strongly in the past. Closely associated with the Helsinki Accords of the mid-1970s, this concept states that the security of one nation is inseparable from the security of its neighbors in the same region. Crucially, it is a term that Russia relied on to justify its invasion of Ukraine. Xi Jinping and top Chinese officials have since referenced the GSI in an array of international and regional forums, ranging from the United Nations to the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), as well as in numerous bilateral statements. These and other related developments provide increasing evidence of Beijing’s ambition to shape international narratives in matters of peace and security.
It is also becoming increasingly clear that Beijing’s preferred approaches to conflict prevention diverge in critical respects from those that reflect the norms and mechanisms of established multilateral security institutions and other actors with a mission to prevent conflict. Beijing’s prominent role in international and regional organizations enables it to promote its preferences to the potential detriment of U.N.-adopted principles and norms for reducing the risks of conflict and sustaining peace. These principles and norms include emphasizing human rights, human security and inclusive development as well as involving stakeholders beyond governments in efforts to avert violent conflict.
To explore why and how Beijing’s conflict prevention preferences depart from established norms, our forthcoming report draws on official Chinese sources, writings by Chinese scholars and international specialists and insights from Chinese and other international experts who closely follow the evolution of conflict prevention norms and policies. This research addresses four principal questions:
- How is China approaching conflict prevention, and how does its approach appear to differ from existing norms and frameworks?
- What are the domestic and international drivers of China’s preferences for conflict prevention?
- Which cases stand out as illustrative examples of China’s approach to conflict prevention norms, and what can be learned from them? Which cases should be more deeply explored?
- How will China’s approach to conflict prevention norms affect multilateral security institutions, regional security norms and mechanisms, and the interests and preferences of the United States and other key international players?
This forthcoming study addresses these questions and related issues by laying out what is known about China’s approaches to conflict prevention and their implementation. It begins by briefly defining conflict prevention and highlighting a number of established frameworks and international approaches; it then explores PRC principles, positions and policies, as well as actions taken in multilateral, bilateral and unilateral contexts. Next, the report delves into three specific case studies to shed greater light on China’s approach to conflict prevention. These case studies describe relevant developments in relation to the United Nations Peace and Development Trust Fund, which China has funded; a pair of regional institutions in which China is an influential player, namely, the SCO and the CICA; and China-Solomon Islands relations. The report concludes with an analysis of Beijing's future role as an international security actor, the implications of these developments for the United States, and recommendations for U.S. policy.
Bates Gill is the executive director of the Center for China Analysis at the Asia Society Policy Institute, a senior associate fellow with the Royal United Services Institute, and an honorary professor at Macquarie University.