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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.