Written by Wang Xuejun.

There are two main schools of thought among scholars responding to the topic of Chinese peace-building in Africa. One is that China will maintain a conservative stance in African security affairs and will largely adapt to the unstable situation in Africa, rather than trying to reshape it. The other is that China will construct a new paradigm of peace building and play an increasingly active role in peace and security affairs in the continent. In order to grasp the trend of China’s policy towards African peace and security affairs, it is necessary to understand the structural logic of China’s policy.

I adopt a domestic lens to understanding China’s foreign policy in order to analyse China’s Africa policy. This follows China’s experiences of maintaining internal stability, which is focused on prioritising economic development. China’s notion of peace can be summarised as “developmental peace”, which is different from the notion of western liberal peace. China’s policy towards Africa in peace and security assumes some distinctive features, which can be termed as a “sovereignty plus development” model.

China constructed its own perception of domestic peace, which was different from the liberal peace theory. It can be termed developmental peace or peace through development, which believes that social and economic development is fundamental to sustainable domestic peace processes.

Domestic experiences: achieving internal stability and peace

The first experience to note is China’s promotion of stability through development. Although China established its independent national economic system in 1949, national economic development suffered from political interference in the Mao Zedong era, among which the most outstanding event was the Cultural Revolution(文化大革命). Deng Xiaoping (1978-1989) initiated the new era of China’s reform and ‘opening up’, making the central focus of the Communist Party of China (CCP) to lead the country’s economic development process. Consequently, China’s own development was fast-tracked. Subsequent leaders inherited Deng Xiaoping’s political legacy, insisting on economic development’s priority. The Chinese authorities are convinced that economic development is fundamental to bringing about peace and stability.

China’s second experience in achieving security and stability is subordinating political democratic reform to national stability. China believes that hasty democratisation, particularly radical western-style democracy, is not suitable for China because it could have a destructive effect on peace and stability in China. Based on these perceptions, China has adopted gradual and conservative political reform measures, including inter-party democracy, political decentralisation, and the rule of law,. Among them, the most important policy measure is absorbing emerging economic and intellectual elites into the government’s decision-making system. Some scholars summarise political reform in China as “democracy of governance techniques”.

China’s third experience in maintaining prosperity and stability is to uphold sovereignty in the process of national development. This point is reflected in China’s strong sense of sovereignty and the principle of safeguarding sovereignty and being self-reliant. Even in the process of reform and ‘opening up’, state sovereignty and security are always put first.

 China’s peace-building in Africa

Based on its experience in maintaining social order and domestic stability internally, China constructed its own perception of domestic peace, which was different from the liberal peace theory. It can be termed developmental peace or peace through development, which believes that social and economic development is fundamental to sustainable domestic peace processes. Meanwhile, it also places emphasis on gradual political and social reform and the strengthening of national sovereignty to advance political and economic development. China’s policy can be referred to as the sovereignty plus development model, which has some distinctive features.

First, it highlights African ownership and sovereignty in conflict management and post-conflict reconstruction. Not only is this point embodied in China’s policy discourse in many international multilateral conferences and forums, but it is also reflected in China’s practice of participating in peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction in Africa. This seemingly conservative position does not mean that China refuses to engage with African countries or other actors in internal peace and conflicts issues in Africa. On the contrary, China often participates in peace operations including peacekeeping and peace-building led by the African Union or the United Nations. Furthermore, with its expanding interests, it is playing a larger role in African conflict management.

Secondly, China highlights the concept of peace through development, while adopting a prudent position concerning institution-building and democratic elections in post-conflict countries in Africa. China’s developmental peace thesis insists that social economic development is the most important precondition of sustainable internal peace, so it prefers to help African countries with national development, rather than promoting hasty democratisation, in order to build the basis of long and stable peace.

Thirdly, as far as conflict resolution is concerned, China insists on maintaining national unity and territorial integrity, advocating negotiations to resolve conflict peacefully, opposing the use of coercive means to settle disputes. This differs from the liberal peace thesis, which is inclined to use coercive and divisive means to contain violence and make peace. Those differences are reflected in many cases, including the Eritrea issue, Kosovo issue and South Sudan issue, as well as the recent policy towards the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In conclusion, developmental peace has become a popular concept in Chinese and international academic circles, with some scholars arguing that it is the Chinese solution to UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding. However, as one of the scholars who proposed the concept of developmental peace in 2014, I am also furthering the discussion by reflecting on it and criticising it.  A new research paper on China’s concept on peacebuilding will be published in one of China’s high-level academic journals later this year.

Wang Xuejun is a PHD in international relations, research fellow in the Institute of African Studies of Zhejiang Normal University of China. His research areas include African peace and security issues, China’s relations with Africa and China’s policy towards global governance. He has published more than twenty articles on African security issues and international relations. Image Credit: CC by United Nations/Flickr.

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