China’s commitment to peace and security in Africa: FOCAC and the SDGs
29 June 2015
Could the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) be used as a tool to help realise the Sustainable Development Goals, asks Chloe Gotterson?
Earlier this month – five years on from when Saferworld held its first seminar exploring China’s engagement on peace, security and development in the African continent – we were back in Shanghai revisiting the issues at an international seminar staged alongside the Shanghai Institute of International Studies. It’s interesting to see how things have changed.
One of the ideas proposed by Chinese and African experts attending the 2010 seminar was the inclusion of peace and security issues within the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). At this time this was considered highly sensitive but in a progressive move only two years later, peace and security became one of the pillars of the FOCAC Beijing Action Plan with the establishment of a ‘China-Africa Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Security’.
Fast-forward to today, and we are eagerly awaiting the sixth FOCAC meeting, due to be hosted in South Africa in December. Peace and security issues seem to be gaining yet more clout within the agenda, with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressing that the maintenance of regional peace and security is one of three key areas in which he expects China-Africa cooperation to be enhanced as a result of the meeting in South Africa.
Yet despite the apparent outward prominence given to peace and security within FOCAC, one of the issues debated during the seminar was the extent to which China would actively support the realisation of a proposed goal on peaceful societies within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For me, this was one of the most interesting and timely questions as we approach the final agreement on the new development framework in September, which will be universal in nature and will define the world’s collective development priorities for the next 15 years. Offering a preventive and developmental approach, the proposed SDG 16 on ‘Promoting peaceful and inclusive societies’ appears to chime with China’s FOCAC commitments to African peace and security.
Nonetheless, the strength of China’s support for SDG 16 is open to question. As scholars at our seminar pointed out, explicit support for the peace-related aspects of the proposed SDGs has not been made in official documents such as the Chinese Government’s recent ‘Position Paper on the Post-2015 Development Agenda’. During negotiations on the SDGs, China’s government raised concerns about the risk of interference in internal affairs; that issues related to peace could be dealt with more effectively in other UN forums; and, finally, that a restricted focus on the core matters of development would help promote peace anyway. During our seminar, one scholar further argued that the universality of the agenda meant that China had a different attitude to the SDGs than it did to FOCAC. Despite these concerns, China has agreed to the inclusion of SDG 16 and, barring a negotiating disaster, it looks like the goal will remain in the final text. What matters now is how strongly Beijing backs its implementation.
In my opinion, it seems that backing the peaceful societies agenda in the SDGs would support, rather than undermine, China’s foreign policy objectives, particularly as it increasingly seems to engage in ‘persuasive diplomacy’. This is a principle-based form of preventative diplomacy which is in-line with other Chinese foreign policy objectives and which ensures respect for cultural and religious norms and the prioritisation of the role of regional organisations. One of the concluding remarks of the seminar was that China should be credited for embarking on a quiet reinterpretation of its foreign policy objectives as a means of allowing it to play a more active role in addressing conflict. China today seems more open to addressing peace and security challenges including, hopefully, through its contributions to meeting SDG 16 on the African continent.
Given that the SDGs are non-binding and action towards their achievement will be implemented by countries in a way that is most appropriate for their national context, the scope for undue ‘interference’ in African affairs seems no greater than it is within existing FOCAC agreements. Through focusing on a set of 12 specific targets – many of which China supported in the negotiations – SDG 16 calls for a preventive and developmental approach to promoting peace. Supporting African countries to meet these targets would complement the more reactive, ‘hard-security’ approach which currently dominates not only FOCAC’s focus on peace and security, but indeed that of the wider UN system more broadly. Furthermore, targets in other goals, for example on reducing inequalities between social groups and promoting inclusive economic growth, would also contribute to more peaceful societies in recognition of the complex two-way relationship between development and peace.
The commonalities between the objectives of the FOCAC agenda and the SDGs mean that FOCAC could perhaps be used as a tool for the realisation of the SDGs. Indeed, when comparing the proposed Goal 16 targets and the specific actions in the last FOCAC agreement, the parallels are clear. Localising the SDGs in this manner may make it easier to develop actionable and practical policies, programmes and initiatives that would encourage buy-in from the Chinese Government. This is certainly food for thought at such a pivotal moment ahead of the upcoming UN Summit to adopt the SDGs and the sixth FOCAC meeting.
Chloe Gotterson is Project officer for the China Programme.