Too Little Coordination, Too Much Charity: EU Support for China’s Peacebuilding

03 June 2021   ·   Miwa Hirono

China’s recent expansion of peacebuilding activities, for example in South Sudan, addresses governmental rather than civil society actors. To ensure that all parts of society, including refugees, are reached, the EU should cooperate with China on peacebuilding measures and promote a more coherent approach of the country’s fragmented landscape with multiple actors.

China is engaged in peacebuilding activities in several fields: political mediation, UN peacekeeping, development, and humanitarian assistance. Since the early 2010s, China has increased its political mediation activities. Of the UN Security Council’s permanent members, China contributes the largest number of peacekeeping personnel and the second largest amount of funding to UN peacekeeping, behind the United States. Moreover, China expanded its humanitarian assistance since 2003, as well as its contribution to development assistance under the banner of its Belt and Road Initiative.

China’s evolving peacebuilding portfolio reflects President Xi Jinping’s proactive foreign policy direction. In the 2000s, China was either indifferent to local conflict or supported governmental actors, even if those were a party to the conflict – all while proclaiming sovereignty and non-intervention principles. This stance has changed since the early 2010s, when China’s decision-makers began engaging in conflict mediation, for example in Myanmar, Afghanistan and South Sudan.

China Supports the South Sudanese Government but Neglects Civil Society Actors

One example for the Chinese evolvement is its current engagement in South Sudan. In 2018, China became a member of IGAD-PLUS, a coalition of Eastern African countries that aims to resolve conflict in South Sudan. My research based on interviews from 2017 to 2018 reveals mixed evaluations. South Sudanese policymakers welcome China’s peacebuilding approach as it “does not take side” of either of the conflict parties. This comes in contrast to the policymakers’ distrust of other mediation actors such as the Troika (a coalition of the US, UK and Norway) due to its perceived punitive approach to South Sudan. While the negotiations are not public, an IGAD informant underlined China’s indispensable role in bringing all conflict parties and regional governments to the negotiating table. The positive responses also derive from China’s medium-level interference in domestic affairs.

Conversely, civil society actors and South Sudanese refugees in neighboring countries criticize that China’s peacebuilding approach has favored the government and ignored vulnerable populations. China does not support an international arms embargo and sanctions against South Sudan, which would help to mitigate the conflict and ease the lives of refugees. Instead, China directly funds the South Sudanese government despite their unequal distribution processes, while leaving out funding for refugees.

Lack of Cross-Sectoral Coordination and Local Empowerment

The poor engagement with non-governmental actors is related to two features, arguably deriving from the rapidly expanding scope of Chinese peacebuilding activities. The first feature is a lack of coordination across different segments of the Chinese peacebuilding community. In fact, China has no “peacebuilding” policy as such. It has separate general orientation points on mediation, UN peacekeeping, and humanitarian and development aid. The responsible staff, however, works in silos: conflict mediation is mainly dealt with by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; UN peacekeeping by the Ministry of Defense and the People’s Liberation Army; and humanitarian and development assistance by the Ministry of Commerce. Moreover, state-owned and private Chinese enterprises are important actors, also in South Sudan. Such a fragmented structure makes it difficult to coordinate from within China. For example, IGAD-PLUS meetings, at which China serves as a mediator, deal with humanitarian impacts on cross-border refugees. But the Chinese Ministry of Commerce or Chinese enterprises do not necessarily consider challenges of refugees when developing their humanitarian and development assistance plans.

The second feature is the nascent concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR), as the Chinese government promulgated corresponding policies towards state-owned enterprises. Businesses’ growing involvement in peacebuilding through CSR activities directly impacts those addressed by the peacebuilding operations. Research shows, however, that CSR in Chinese firms tends “to focus more on the … charity aspects than the transparency and accountability of their investments.” Moreover, enterprises do not attempt to empower local and impoverished people to participate in decision-making processes in their communities, but rather support wealthy people.

The EU Should Include Peacebuilding as a Cooperation Area with China

Ideological differences and political tensions over the ongoing human rights violations in Xinjiang and the EU’s sanctions against Chinese officials followed by China’s sanctions on ten European individuals put the EU-China relations into a downward spiral. Nevertheless, the two major powers should enhance pragmatic, bottom-up, thematic cooperation for long-term global challenges. The EU and the US listed climate change and nuclear non-proliferation as possible areas for such cooperation, and they should add peacebuilding to the list. The EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation aims to “strengthen dialogue and communication on international and regional issues” and “enhance consultations on Africa”. With China’s increasing engagement in peacebuilding, it is imperative for the EU to enhance Chinese capacity in a way that the peacebuilding activities support conflict-affected regions effectively.

Support for Cross-Sectoral Coordination and Firms’ Engagement Beyond Charity

Further, to address China’s lack of coordination across different peacebuilding sectors, the European Commission’s International Partnerships department should share their experiences with the Chinese government in developing a cross-sector approach to peacebuilding. More concretely, the department should start consultations with the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA), which formulates strategic guidelines, plans, and policies for foreign aid. From the CIDCA’s perspective, peacebuilding activities fall within the so-called South-South Cooperation. To form more coherent guidelines for China’s approaches, the CIDCA should coordinate all peacebuilding components.

In addition, the EU’s Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (DG GROW) should add CSR as a topic for its regular dialogue with the Department of Policy and Regulations in China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) discussed CSR for Chinese enterprises in the domestic context with China’s Ministry of Commerce. GIZ should extend its discussions to the context of Chinese engagement in conflict-affected regions and include it in its current cooperation program, which addresses cooperation among China, Germany and third countries. The EU and Germany should also support civil society actors working with Chinese enterprises in conflict-affected regions to further promote the idea of CSR going beyond the current charity model.

Lastly, the Directorate-General European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Operations (DG ECHO) should encourage the Chinese Ministry of Commerce to pay more attention to vulnerable populations in South Sudan. Given the EU’s track record of humanitarian assistance in South Sudan, it should also continue working with the South Sudanese government in this regard. Further, the EU needs to cooperate with both governments to ensure that China’s humanitarian assistance directly reaches vulnerable populations in South Sudan.

Cooperation China Peace negotiation

Miwa Hirono

Miwa Hirono is an Associate Professor at the College of Global Liberal Arts at Ritsumeikan University. @MiwaYang