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Is China-UK cooperation in conflict prevention desirable, likely, and/or feasible?

7 March 2016 Chloe Gotterson

Following a seminar on China-UK cooperation on conflict prevention there is room for cautious optimism for greater collaboration, says Chloe Gotterson.

Is China-UK cooperation in conflict prevention desirable, likely, and/or feasible? This was a question we asked participants at a seminar in Beijing last week. To many, it may seem a little bizarre, as the two countries do not necessarily seem like natural partners – especially in an area which can be regarded as sensitive. However, there has been broad support for the idea of China-UK cooperation in conflict prevention, both at the seminar and over the course of our two-year project promoting China-UK dialogue on conflict prevention.

Why China and the UK? Geopolitically, the UK is a lot closer to China than many of its Western counterparts and President Xi’s recent State Visit to the UK has kicked off what has been called a ‘golden era’ for the bilateral relationship. The UK government has also expressed an intention to engage in ‘prevention partnerships’ with emerging economies such as China.

But is China-UK cooperation in conflict prevention desirable? In a word, yes. The current international security context is dire. As one of the speakers pointed out, the latest figures from the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme have shown an increase in deaths due to organised violence over the last five years, with figures for 2014 being the highest for 20 years. We need innovative new approaches to help to make conflict prevention efforts more effective. The fresh thinking that comes with new partnerships and dialogue should be welcomed.

Whilst China and the UK have very different approaches to understanding and engaging in conflict prevention overseas, seminar participants noted that by coming together they can coordinate their efforts and combine their respective strengths. The UK has considerable experience in conflict prevention, from which numerous lessons can be learnt, but its economic strength and political will for conflict prevention are declining. China, on the other hand, is beginning to toy with the idea of mediating conflicts as it branches out into conflict-affected and fragile states.

Is China-UK cooperation in conflict prevention feasible? The concept of China-UK partnership in conflict prevention is not new. The governments of China and the UK have been discussing the idea for a few years. They officially agreed to work together to prevent conflict in 2011 as part of a development partnership between the UK Department for International Development and China’s Ministry of Commerce. This partnership was renewed in October 2015, when the two countries agreed to work together towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

There is now a window of opportunity for cooperation, as both countries are keen to develop their policies on peace and security. This is particularly true for China. Whilst Chinese engagement in conflict prevention tends to be ad hoc and reactive, there are clear incentives for China to play a greater role and evidence to suggest that it is already beginning to be more proactive, as demonstrated in South Sudan where China has been mediating rival factions.

What struck me during the seminar was the fluidity of attitudes to the principle of non-interference amongst Chinese participants. Whilst adherence to the principle of non-interference is emphasised at the official level as the cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy, speakers recognised that the Chinese government should intervene, where legal, appropriate, and mandated by the UN Security Council, as part of its responsibilities to the international community. Discussion revolved around the theory of ‘creative involvement’, which explains how and why Chinese foreign policy is becoming more proactive. However, refreshingly, speakers recognised the need to move beyond endless theoretical debates and the dogmatic interpretation of non-interference. It was suggested that instead China should design a new policy, or laws and regulations, to support its increasing role in conflict prevention. Another speaker suggested that China should overcome the “fear of failure” which has led to the current scenario where it will only intervene when it can see a guaranteed positive end point. It is changes such as these which suggest increasing convergence of Chinese and UK approaches to conflict prevention, making the two countries better placed to engage in meaningful cooperation.

Is it likely, in practice? Whilst China-UK cooperation in conflict prevention is already being talked about at a limited and theoretical level, there is a need to translate this into action on the ground in conflict-affected and fragile states. Small steps can be taken to increase mutual understanding and partnership at different levels – for example by increasing interactions between Chinese and UK embassies, development actors and researchers in unstable contexts. This is a realistic goal that can be quickly and easily achieved, and can help to provide the foundations for more substantial higher-level cooperation.

Whilst there will undoubtedly continue to be some differences in the two country’s approaches to conflict prevention, we should be cautiously optimistic about the prospects for China-UK cooperation and encourage continued dialogue. What brings China and the UK together is more than what separates them. Both sides can build on their overlapping interests to tackle violence and instability, in everyone’s interests.

You can read more about how China and the UK engage in conflict prevention, and the prospects for China-UK cooperation, in our new report ‘conflict prevention in the 21st century: China and the UK’, which was launched at this seminar. Special thanks to the Charhar Institute for co-hosting the event with us.

“There is now a window of opportunity for cooperation between China and the UK on conflict prevention, as both countries are keen to develop their policies on peace and security. ”

Chloe Gotterson