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A reluctant leader? China and Post-2015

14 November 2013 - Thomas Wheeler

Following a recent visit to Beijing, Saferworld’s Thomas Wheeler explores what role China can potentially play in the process to agree a post-2015 development framework that includes peace.

China’s development has made a substantial contribution to progress on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Without its booming economy, the world would likely not have met the target of halving poverty rates five years ahead of schedule. Three quarters of the world’s total decline in extreme poverty over the past three decades occurred in China, with 680 million of its people moved out of poverty between 1981 and 2010.

Yet this progress should not be perceived as active support for the MDGs as many in China are quick to stress. The MDGs were not significant in shaping the Chinese government’s strategy for creating a xiaokang (‘moderately prosperous’) society by 2020. Nor have the MDGs guided China’s overseas development assistance, receiving only inconsequential references in its 2011 White Paper on Foreign Aid. Beijing is expected to release an updated White Paper soon and the extent to which it focuses on the MDGs – and what development framework should follow them – could tell us how much of a priority the post-2015 framework is for Beijing. 

Towards post-2015

The post-2015 development framework has certainly moved up the Chinese agenda over the past 18 months. In June 2012 the topic of a new framework was discussed at the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), in July Chinese Ambassador Wang Yingfan joined the UN Sectary-General’s High Level Panel on Post-2015, and in November 2012 at the 18th Communist Party of China’s National Congress Former President Hu Jintao declared that China would work with the international community to “establish a new type of global development partnership that is more equitable and balanced”. According to scholars, “while full of ambiguities, this short declaration will guide future Chinese policy and discussion on the post-2015 agenda”.

Some ambiguities were laid to rest in September 2013, when China released a relatively extensive Position Paper on the Development Agenda beyond 2015. At the opening of the 68th UN General Assembly (UNGA), China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, gave a surprisingly detailed speech entitled “Peace, Development and Cooperation Must be Moved Forward Instead of Backward”. It is early days still and, as with most countries, China’s exact position is not yet fixed. Current wording within both the paper and the speech give room for some flexibility but some parameters on China’s position can be identified:

  • The focus should be on poverty reduction and the framework must not be overburdened with ambition. This means largely focusing on the incomplete MDGs, plus a few upgrades.
  • While universal, Africa and least developed countries are highlighted as the primary beneficiaries of a new framework, which should be focused on the very poorest.   
  • States have “common but differentiated responsibilities” to support global development. This is linked to the oft-repeated argument that “North-South cooperation should continue to serve as the main channel” for development financing.
  • Countries must have full ownership over the agenda and different models of development must be respected – a red line with regards to anything perceived as “normative values”.

Peaceful development

What is China’s position on using the new development framework to promote peaceful societies? On the one hand, Foreign Minister Wang’s speech made crystal clear that the Chinese government recognises peace as an essential precondition for development:

“In advancing the development agenda, we must cherish peace as we do our eyes. War has made tens of millions of people homeless, reduced infrastructures to rubble, and brought decades of hard work to nought. To uphold peace is the purpose of the UN Charter as well as the precondition for the MDGs.”

On the other hand, while they have not ruled it out, our conversations in Beijing highlighted that officials and the wider policy community are sceptical about whether a development framework is the right place to promote peace and stability. They worry about overburdening the framework, the technical feasibility, a dilution of state sovereignty and tend to argue that the three pillars of the UN - peace and security, development, and human rights – should be kept separate.

Chinese policymakers and researchers often associate calls for peace to be included in the post-2015 framework with debates on international peace and security, humanitarian intervention or crises such as that in Syria. When the peace agenda is discussed as something that states will do for themselves at the national level, rather than something that the international community will do to states, there is less resistance. In fact many of the specific aspects of the peace agenda have a resonance in China. For example, there is a firm understanding of the centrality of stability, the role of state responsiveness to people’s needs, the dangers of corruption and the need to address inequalities between groups. Many in the Chinese policy community are interested in discussing how development outcomes – for example related to employment or education opportunities for young men – can prevent conflict.

Unsurprisingly, politically sensitive issues, such as indicators on governance that would measure elections, are met with strong opposition. Chinese officials are quick to stress that different paths to development must be respected while arguing that it is not technically feasible to measure what they see as “normative judgements”. They may be more comfortable discussing the problems facing conflict-affected states in the developing world, especially in Africa. Peace was identified as one of five key areas for a deepening of China-Africa cooperation in July 2012, with then President Hu Jintao emphasising the need to “promote peace and stability in Africa and create a secure environment for Africa’s development”. In fact FOCAC agreements contain significant focus on this challenge, including references to the importance of good governance and democracy.

A leadership role?

Interest in the post-2015 agenda among officials, the wider policy community and the media in China remains relatively low. As UN negotiations on the framework approach interest will inevitably increase. Indeed, it will be difficult for China to ignore them. As an economic success story, the world’s largest developing country and Africa’s partner du jour, others will expect China’s officials and research community to be able to answer questions about its position on post-2015.

Furthermore – while it should not be over-stated – there is a small chance that, over the next two years, Beijing will decide to move beyond a reactive posture to negotiations and seek to push its own vision, build coalitions and pro-actively shape what the final development framework looks like. At the UN Assembly, Foreign Minister Wang stated that China was aware of its global responsibilities and would

“… be fully and more actively engaged in international affairs and work closely with other countries to meet complex global challenges and tackle difficult issues facing mankind. We will voice China's views, offer China's wisdom, propose China's solutions, play China's due role and provide more public goods to the international community.”

Despite the positive rhetoric it is unlikely that this signals a fundamental departure from Deng Xiaoping’s guiding foreign policy maxim for China to “keep a low profile and never take the lead”. But the new administration, now more confidently in charge at home, could be tempted to adopt a more visible profile on some global issues. While its developing country credentials are diminishing with every year of reported high GDP figures and every new skyscraper on Shanghai’s skyline, the post-2015 negotiations could prove an opportune forum for China to present itself as a leading representative of the global South. But moving beyond a largely reactive posture to post-2015 would require a high-level political decision, which Chinese scholars still believe to be unlikely: domestic development remains the priority for a ruling party still largely pre-occupied with maintaining its legitimacy inside China, never mind outside it.

To a certain degree, China will have leadership forced onto it, regardless of its intentions. According to Chinese officials, African states have already started making requests of Beijing. Indeed the post-2015 negotiations may not reveal so much about how China looks to lead the developing world, but how the developing world looks to China for leadership.

Thomas Wheeler is a Conflict and Security Adviser for Saferworld  with a focus on rising powers in conflict-affected states, as well as the intersection between aid and conflict and the post-2015 Millenium Development Goals discussions.

Read more about Saferworld's world on Rising Powers and post-2015.



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the post-2015 negotiations may not reveal so much about how China looks to lead the developing world, but how the developing world looks to China for leadership.

Thomas Wheeler