Think open dialogue and reconciliation and China isn’t usually the first country that comes to mind. But in 2013 China shifted its principle of “non-interference in other countries” to one of active conflict resolution in some of the world’s most intractable contexts: Israel-Palestine, Myanmar, and Afghanistan. This shift reflects a growing confidence, certainly a growing need for China to be more globally engaged. But while it may be a welcome foray, its success will be muted at best unless China can overcome one major blind spot: religion.
In the Middle East, China’s engagement was traditionally focused primarily on expanding trade and developing energy sources. In political matters, Beijing remained in the background and avoided taking any controversial stances. However, in May 2013 China hosted back-to-back visits from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and introduced a four-point peace proposal. There was nothing bracingly new here, but it did signal China’s interest. And although talks have broken down, the Chinese government has stated, “China’s political role in the Middle East will only be enhanced, not diminished.”
Closer to home, China has also intervened in one of Southeast Asia’s longest running civil wars: the conflict between the Myanmar national government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The Kachin are an ethnic minority group whose language, culture, and religion are vastly different from the majority Burmans who control the national government. Most of the Kachin population lives in the resource-rich Kachin State located in the north and bordering China’s Yunnan province. Since 1962, the KIA has been fighting the Burmese military to resist the government’s cultural assimilation policies and takeover of their homeland. When the conflict intensified in late-2012 and early 2013, resulting in thousands of refugees streaming into China and errant artillery shells falling into Chinese territory, China got engaged. It mediated talks in early 2013, the first time in decades that China had taken on an active and public role in another country’s internal conflict.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
More boldly still, in December 2014, China hosted a delegation of Taliban representatives a few months after Afghan president Ashraf Ghani visited Beijing. An Afghan official stated that China was “offering to take the role of facilitator.” China has also proposed forming a regional forum for Afghan reconciliation that would involve Afghanistan, Pakistan, Taliban, and China.
The altruism shouldn’t be overstated. First, China has substantial economic interests that would be jeopardized by worsening conflict. In the Middle East, Myanmar, and Afghanistan, China has invested billions into building infrastructure and developing natural resources needed to sustain its economic growth. Second, conflicts in these countries may spillover and threaten China. In the case of Afghanistan, the Chinese government is especially concerned about the Taliban harboring and training Uighur militants from Xinjiang. In Myanmar, besides concerns about Kachin refugees spilling into China, there is also a possibility that China’s own citizens could get caught up in the crossfire, or even take up arms for the Kachin. On the Chinese side of the Sino-Myanmar border resides the Jingpo people, who are essentially the same ethnicity as the Kachin and consider them their kin. Third, playing the role of a convener enables China to exclude actors that it doesn’t like. In the case of Myanmar, representatives asked for American observers, which China flatly rejected.
China’s self-interests notwithstanding, its initiatives at mediation have been welcomed by parties on all sides. They largely see Beijing as a neutral party that does not have any of the historical or philosophical baggage that Western powers bear. But China will need to tread carefully. The Chinese Communist Party’s worldview of material interest and power is badly equipped to make sense of the extraordinarily complex religious dynamics at work. Material power matters in Israel and Palestine, Myanmar, and Afghanistan. But so does religion. It also influences the way the Chinese public, which is growing increasingly religious, views the conflicts and their government’s role in them.
For example, the decision by the Kachin, who are predominantly Christian, to engage in armed resistance was made in direct response to the government’s initial declaration of Buddhism as the state religion in 1961. Since then, the Myanmar government has sought to impose “one ethnicity, one language, and one religion” over all the ethnic groups in the country by military force. The Kachin’s strong Christian identity has drawn surprising sympathy (and even active support) from some Chinese Christians for their plight. The prospect of peace in Afghanistan without reference to Islam is impossibly naïve. While China enjoys positive relations with the Afghan governing elite, the general public views China negatively because of its treatment of its Muslim Uighur population as well as the Chinese Communist Party’s avowed atheism.
Chinese diplomats will not be able to move forward without the tools of religious literacy in their diplomatic toolbox. Ultimately, a sustainable solution to conflicts in deeply religious contexts will require religious and political leaders to partner together. Thus, China will need to learn how to identify and engage key religious actors on all sides of a conflict who support promoting peace and reconciliation.
A sensible first step would be to incorporate “religious literacy” into the standard training curriculum for Chinese diplomats that would be taught, ideally, by religious believers themselves. Further down the line, China should also draw upon its own vibrant religious community to assist the government’s conflict mediation efforts. This will not be easy for the Chinese Communist Party. It will, however, be essential. The negotiating fields of Israel and Palestine, Myanmar, and Afghanistan are littered with failed peace efforts. China’s initiatives will end up with the same fate, unless it can overcome its avowed atheism and do the work of diplomacy in a world of resurging religion.
James Chen is the Vice President for Overseas Programs at the Institute for Global Engagement.