China’s Development Diplomacy

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China’s Development Diplomacy

Beijing must recognize the consequences of its engagement in countries where peace is fragile and act accordingly. But the West also has a mixed record.

The recent capture of 29 Chinese road constructors by rebels in Sudan has made clear rising powers like China are increasingly involved in countries where peace is fragile. China’s willingness to match financial assistance to host government requests, largely without political conditions, has made it a popular partner. Even in neighboring South Sudan, where infrastructure needs are immense, an official admits that “if a man is thirsty, he needs to drink, no matter where the water comes from. China is ready to do things straightaway…When the West gives some small money, they want to manage it very carefully. While they are thinking what to do, China will come in.”

Beijing’s approach to conflict-affected countries has tended to prioritize healthy diplomatic relations with host governments, often with an eye to deepening commercial ties. The policy of non-interference in other states’ internal affairs has been one way to support these ties. The principle often implies implicit support for the incumbent regime and a state-orientated vision of stability. In practice, while the principle of non-interference remains important, Chinese policy has been implemented with a degree of pragmatism. For example, when it has judged its interests to be at stake, Beijing has exerted pressure on host governments to pursue peaceful options and hedged against political change by building relationships with alternative guarantors of stability.

China’s business-like approach to supporting economic development in some post-war contexts – typified by cheap loans from state-owned banks that pay Chinese companies to deliver infrastructure projects – can yield quicker results than Western aid and provide a tangible peace dividend. However, when the benefits are seen to favor certain groups or consolidating the power of elites, China’s economic role may inadvertently exacerbate instability. This reality of engagement in conflict-affected states is placing new pressures on Chinese policy.

China’s growing role is also creating a new reality for Western donors and policymakers. Sri Lanka is a case in point. In recent years, China has become the largest development financer and arms supplier to the Government of Sri Lanka. After they had long backed a peace agreement, Western states openly questioned the conduct of Sri Lanka’s 2009 military campaign that defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, leading to cuts in aid, restricted arms sales and calls for an international investigation into alleged war crimes. If such concerns existed in Beijing, they were muted: Sri Lanka’s conflict was an internal matter. Loans, arms and diplomatic backing continued.

But blaming China for the collapse of the peace in Sri Lanka overlooks not only the importance of domestic political dynamics that were beyond the international community’s control, but also the West’s own failings. Western states are by no means always a benign counterweight to China’s presence. Their record in promoting peace overseas is mixed at best, and they are no strangers to prioritizing healthy relations with host governments and top-down approaches to stability.

However, it’s hard not to conclude that with a more diverse market for development assistance, diplomatic support and arms, governments in conflict-affected states are less responsive to Western conditionalities and pressure. “It’s hard to imagine that the 2009 end to the conflict would have played out the same way 15 years ago”, notes one Western diplomat based in Colombo. “Today’s context is different.” Furthermore, calls for the protection of human rights, democratic reforms and good governance, never that loudly or consistently applied to start with, are at some risk of becoming even quieter as Western states compete with Beijing for the favor of host governments.

Nonetheless, although different values and principles exist, a shared interest in stability represents a concrete foundation for co-operation. As Beijing’s approach towards conflict-affected countries evolves to protect deepening interests, there’s an unprecedented opportunity for China and the West to develop more complementary approaches in support of peace. This could, for example, focus on jointly developing policies and principles to make development assistance more conflict-sensitive. The current situation isn’t encouraging. In the contexts where Saferworld conducted research, there was little or no regular dialogue, let alone co-ordination or co-operation, between Chinese and Western representatives. As one Western official admitted, “It’s like we operate in parallel universes: they do what they do, we do what we do.”

To address this, Chinese and Western policymakers need to create avenues for dialogue at multiple levels. This must include not only officials, but also think tanks, academics and NGOs. Discussions on what is understood by stability, and how it’s best promoted overseas, need to take place with the participation of civil society voices from countries where peace is fragile. Small, practical, on-the-ground development projects could be jointly supported in conflict-affected countries, serving as entry-points to deeper co-operation. Western states should make greater efforts to engage China in discussions on important multilateral agreements – such as that on aid effectiveness recently agreed in South Korea, and the upcoming negotiations on an international arms trade treaty. China needs to ensure its representatives participate constructively.

Peace and stability in conflict-affected countries will largely be determined by the decisions of their governments, politicians and leaders. However, complicity in violent conflict and responsibility for peace is multi-layered. Western actors must work together more closely and redouble efforts to promote democracy, human rights and healthy state-society relations. These are the foundations on which inclusive peace and long-term stability are built. Aid to governments in conflict-affected countries needs to be linked more strategically to diplomacy and complemented by support that gives non-state actors a stronger voice in the development process.  

For its part, China wants its rise to be perceived as peaceful. Its image as a global power will be greatly determined by its role in parts of the world that are troubled by conflict. Beijing needs to recognize the consequences of its engagement in countries where peace is fragile and act accordingly. This may mean re-assessing how to interpret non-interference, deliver development finance, and ensure Chinese weapons do not end up fuelling further human suffering. As Chinese policymakers grapple with how to square new-found influence, greater responsibility and deepening interests, they may well find that the solution ultimately lies in working with others.


Thomas Wheeler is project co-ordinator at Saferworld. The organization’s latest briefing highlights the implications for peace and stability of China’s growing engagement in conflict-affected states.