China’s Emergence as a Peacebuilding Actor: from ‚Peaceful Development‘ to ‚Developmental Peace‘?

Chinese Engineers Join Peacekeeping Force in Darfur. Picture: flickr, United Nations Photo, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

China’s increasing engagement with conflict and post-conflict societies has already attracted significant attention from international observers, particularly as it emerged as a major contributor to peacekeeping missions in the 00s (covered, for example, in this Saferworld report and a special issue of International Peacekeeping). One of the earliest patterns established by Chinese PKO deployments (most of which occurred in Africa) has been a focus on technical assistance, construction work and the provision of social services over combat roles. More recently, China has also dramatically expanded its economic investments in many of the same countries, mainly as a result of its ever-growing appetite for natural resources and its global „Belt and Road“ initiative (BRI). Yet, Chinese involvement in peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction remains a relatively underexplored subject.

This may be due to some factors that seemingly make China an unlikely candidate for such a role: first, discussions of peacebuilding at the international level have often revolved around the ideal of the „liberal peace“ which holds that stability requires inclusive political systems, an idea that is obviously at odds with China’s own system of governance. Second, official Chinese statementsat the UN have consistently stressed the need for local owner- and leadership, naturally leading to a relatively low profile and precluding an assertive advertising of China’s own approach to the task. Third, a belief in the inviolability of national sovereignty and noninterference in domestic political issues are the most fundamental norms of Chinese diplomacy, yet peacebuilding often requires deep engagement with political actors at the sub-national level and involves creating alternative sources of authority.

However, despite these handicaps, I argue that China is poised to emerge as a major actor in peacebuilding even in the absence of a conscious drive to do so, for the simple reason that the sum of its political and economic activities in post-conflict societies will give it both a major stake in the stabilization of these countries and the necessary means to play a leading role. The dynamics set off by China’s deepening engagement especially in African countries are likely to exert a further pull, and will make it necessary for China to quickly come to terms with its new role. Additionally, the BRI has further stoked Chinese ambitions to demonstrate how its own rise can transform other societies for the better, which has imbued related projects with a symbolic value that exceeds their pure economic utility and will make it even more imperative to show their positive impact.

Accordingly, some Chinese academics have floated the idea of a „developmental peace“ that can be seen as a competing model to the „liberal peace“ usually favored by Western actors. While still relatively underdeveloped and not yet translated into official policy, the compelling idea behind this approach is that the answer to post-conflict stabilization may be found in China’s own historical experience: in a nutshell, state-led development and the provision of economic opportunities should take precedent over political reforms; the stability and power of governing institutions is more important for this task than their inclusiveness; and technical aid and investment by external actors should be provided without political strings attached. If a post-conflict society experiences stable economic growth, the theory goes, benefits will ultimately disseminate to all parties and increase their stake in social stability, thus avoiding a reopening of hostilities. Proponents of this approach stress not just its practical utility, but also its value for Chinese norm entrepreneurship, thus designating peacebuilding as another area in which China should actively assert its own values and methods.

It should be pointed out that this model has neither been officially adopted by the Chinese government, nor is it without its critics even in China. However, the crucial point is that many Chinese initiatives across the fields of peacekeeping, conflict mediation, and infrastructure construction arguably already point in this direction, and may ultimately converge in such a model. Consider the impact of China’s high-profile BRI, whose project selection has been marked by a very high risk tolerance and thus seen billions of public and private capital pouring into conflict and post-conflict societies like Pakistan, South Sudan or Sri Lanka. Since infrastructure investments take very long to amortize, Chinese investors will have a massive stake in the long-term stability of these countries, obliging the Chinese government to safeguard these interests through conflict mediation measures, involving it more deeply in conflict-prone environments like the Middle East, and serving as a test case for whether peace and reconciliation can really spring from new economic opportunities. As we discussed at a recent workshopin Vienna co-organized by Saferworld and the ASPR, the peace and security implications of the BRI are multidimensional and hard to grasp, especially in highly complex post-conflict environments where the influx of new resources and their uneven distribution to local groups may actually exacerbate existing hostilities.

As Chinese sources point out, the sheer scope of such initiatives and the broad range of Chinese actors involved in them – different government ministries, private business actors, the PLA, each with their own interests – have so far defied high-level coordination. Despite this, China’s rapidly expanding footprint in countries like Afghanistan has led to expectations that it will more deeply engage with local peace processes and become a crucial actor in conflict management. In the way of a self-fulfilling prophecy, this belief both already affords China an outsized influence in these processes and creates additional pressure to use it constructively.

The question is how this impact will play out in the future – whether the diverse strands of Chinese influence on post-conflict societies will ultimately be bundled into a specific model and presented as a comprehensive challenge to liberal approaches, or whether they will rather amount to a kind of „accidental peacebuilding“ as the various involved actors grapple with the link between security and developmental needs and devise ad-hoc measures. Early signs of the former could be identified if the concept of a „developmental peace“ gains wider traction in Chinese policy debates. In any case, however, China as a peacebuilding actor deserves far more critical recognition than its relatively low profile in the PBC and current debates would suggest. International observers and peacebuilding actors, especially those whose own operations may be complementary or competing with Chinese activities, should focus on the following aspects:

  • Monitoring Chinese debates at the nexus of academia and policy in order to pick up on early signs of a more comprehensive and coherent Chinese peacebuilding strategy emerging;
  • Studying the situation on the ground, especially in post-conflict societies like South Sudan, where Chinese actors are already deploying the entire breadth of activities described above. Of particular interest is if these activities are marketed to recipient countries as a „package“ deal that is understood to be exclusive with Western-championed liberal approaches;
  • Engaging Chinese actors, including non-state ones, that are entering post-conflict societies and have expressed an interest in knowledge-sharing with organizations that have been in the field for longer. This is also an opportunity to build a broader epistemic community and prevent the fracturing into competing national perspectives on peacebuilding.
  • Stressing that compliance with environmental and social responsibility standards for projects in conflict societies is crucial to ensure their long-term sustainability and ultimately in the interest of all concerned parties. If political measures are deemphasized, it is all the more important that development impulses are enjoyed by the great majority of locals and do not exacerbate existing inequalities.
About the author

Pascal Abb is a senior researcher at the Austrian Study Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution (ASPR). He is a member of the Regional Powers Network that studies the effects of ongoing power shifts in different world regions. His research focuses on the international relations of East Asia, Chinese foreign policy and the role of experts in policymaking. He recently published a summary of China’s peacebuilding activities and their normative underpinnings as an ASPR Policy Brief.