Authors: Caitlin Dearing Scott and Isabella Mekker
From its declared policy of noninterference and personnel contributions to United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping Missions to its purported role in mediating conflicts, China has long sought to portray itself as a responsible global leader, pushing narratives about building a “community of common destiny” and promoting its model of governance and economic and political development as a path to stability. This narrative belies the reality. Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-style “stability,” whether to protect Belt and Road Investments (BRI) or regimes with favorable policies towards China, in practice facilitates authoritarianism and human rights violations, contributes to environmental degradation and corruption, and undermines democratic governance, all of which can fuel instability, intentionally or otherwise.
In pursuit of its true goal – “a world safe for the party” – China has leveraged its diplomatic and economic power to weaken the international human rights system, bolstering support for illiberal regimes, contributing to democratic decline and exacerbating global fragility in the process. Nowhere is this more apparent than in conflict-affected contexts.
Conflict Resolution, CCP Style
Although China brands itself as a ‘promoter of stability, peace, and unity’, its very definition of stability is built on its authoritarian model of governance. This, plus its concerns about non-interference in its own domestic issues, informs its conflict resolution approach, which emphasizes host state consent and political settlement, two-ideas that can be laudable in theory, depending on the context. In practice, however, China’s conflict mediation efforts in some instances have provided support to incumbent regimes who are perpetuating violence and conflict, promoting a ‘stability’ that disregards the voices of vulnerable populations and the need for inclusive governance. In the case of the Syrian civil war, China’s “political solution” meant maintaining China-friendly Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power, while blocking resolutions condemning the regime’s brutality against its citizens.
“Stability” promoted by China can also come at the expense of human rights. China (and Russia) have previously pushed for cuts to human rights positions within peacekeeping missions, endangering the capacity of these missions to protect civilians in conflict. In Myanmar, where the military is committing unprecedented human rights violations against its own citizens, China initially blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the military coup and other international efforts to restore stability at a time when a strong international response was much needed. This was in line with China’s previous engagement in the country, working closely with the military regime to “mediate” conflict near the Chinese border in a way that preserved China’s interests and influence, but did little to actually address conflict. After a growing humanitarian crisis began to threaten its investments on the Myanmar side of the border, however, China changed rhetorical course, showing where human rights violations stand in its hierarchy of stability.
Advancing China’s Interests, Undermining Governance
China’s policies in fragile states mirror its unstated preference for expanding its economic and political interests, even if securing them sidelines the stated imperative of addressing fragility. In some instances, China has lobbied for UN policies in conflict-affected contexts that appear to support its own agenda rather than – or sometimes at the expense of – peace. According to the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2020 report to Congress, “China has shown an apparent willingness to leverage its influence in the UN peacekeeping operations system to advance its economic interests in African countries, raising the possibility that Beijing is subverting UN norms and procedures in the process.” Per the report, the most notable example of this was in 2014 when China lobbied to expand the UN Mission in South Sudan to protect oil installations of which the China National Petroleum Corporation held a 40 percent stake.
Moreover, China’s pursuit of its interests sets up countries on unstable trajectories. China’s economic investment policies and initiatives exacerbates governance deficits and increases fragility by encouraging corruption, facilitating authoritarianism and human rights violations, and contributing to environmental degradation, all key drivers of conflict. Two cases from Nigeria and Pakistan highlight the point.
In Nigeria, China’s investment projects have exacerbated corruption and fueled distrust in local government – key drivers of conflict and intercommunal violence in the country. China has exploited poor regulatory environments and worked within illegal and corrupt frameworks, often tied to armed groups and criminal networks. In one illustrative example, China state-owned timber trading companies offered bribes to local officials to illegally harvest endangered rosewood. Members of local communities have cited feelings of exploitation by officials accepting bribes from Chinese businessmen, further stressing fragile ties between local government and citizens. Such business practices also demonstrate a blatant disregard for the environmental consequences of illegally harvesting endangered flora and fauna. Moreover, the inherently opaque nature of these projects that are tied to CCP interests makes it difficult to demand accountability.
Similarly in Pakistan, a 62-billion-dollar project known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) aimed at linking Xinjiang to the Arabian sea, has exacerbated tension in conflict-affected provinces. The project plans to build infrastructure and extract resources from several less developed regions, while overwhelmingly benefitting industrial and political hubs such as Punjab. Many provinces, including Balochistan and Sindh, have accused political elites of altering the route of the corridor in their own interests, thus further marginalizing their communities. Separatist groups have launched several attacks throughout the country, not only fueling conflict between Pakistani ethnic groups but also leading to attacks against Chinese expatriates. Recently, prominent voices from within China have called for a military intervention in Pakistan. CPEC has increased military presence throughout small villages, sparked an uptick in violent conflict along the route, and further eroded trust in local government institutions.
These cases may of course signal more opportunism and indifference by China to the impact of its engagement on stability in any given country, as opposed to an explicit attempt to undermine democratic governance (as it has done elsewhere in support of pro-China interests). Regardless of the intent, however, the impact is the same. China’s focus on political leverage and profits first and foremost undermines stability – and China likewise can benefit from instability in states with corrupt politicians interested in trading local resources for short-term political gains.
What Can be Done: Bolstering Democratic Resilience to Address Fragility and Foreign Influence
Foreign authoritarian influence has a compounding impact in conflict-affected contexts, further undermining governance structures, institutions, and processes that can mitigate or exacerbate fragility. Good governance, on the contrary, can not only help countries prevent and manage conflict, but can also help countries address the myriad challenges associated with foreign authoritarian influence. Strong democratic institutions help societies respond positively and productively to threats both domestic and foreign.
Targeted investment in democracy in conflict-affected contexts vulnerable to foreign authoritarian influence offers an important opportunity for utilizing the Global Fragility Strategy in support of US foreign policy initiatives and advancing the Biden Administration’s policy priorities to tackle climate change, prevent authoritarian resurgence, confront corruption, and prevail in strategic competition with China. An investment in support of democracy and good governance to address any one of these issues will reap dividends across each of these issues – engaging in conflict prevention and stabilization programming will both advance global democracy and advance US goals vis-à-vis China and other authoritarian rivals. Such investments, which must be long-term to account for the compounding impact of foreign authoritarian influence in already fragile environments, should include:
- Supporting governments, civil society, and citizens to better understand, expose and counter foreign authoritarian influence, particularly in conflict-affected contexts where data and research efforts can be challenging. An understanding of China’s playbook is critical to countering CCP influence operations;
- Helping independent media to investigate and expose foreign authoritarian influence and how it fuels conflict, whether through training, financial support, or other protections of the civic and information space, to raise public awareness of the impact of such engagement on conflict dynamics and promote transparency and accountability in dealings with foreign actors;
- Developing evidenced-based tools to prevent and mitigate foreign authoritarian influence in fragile contexts;
- Strengthening electoral institutions, political parties, legislative bodies, and judiciaries to uproot elite capture and mitigate malign influence;
- Leveraging diplomacy to build political will and incentives for government officials to resist foreign malign influences. Such diplomatic efforts can include increased outreach and contact with countries previously neglected by the US – but prioritized by China – and public diplomacy to both expose the CCP’s misleading narrative and advance narratives about what democracy can deliver; and
- Coordinating with similarly-minded donors such as the European Union, Japan, and Australia, to implement a unified approach to match the scale of Chinese investment and maximize the impact of any intervention.
Only democracy can help countries navigate the nexus of domestic and foreign threats to their stability. In the era of COVID-19, authoritarian resurgence, and climate crisis, supporting countries to develop these “resilience” fundamentals is a sound – and necessary – investment.
*Isabella Mekker is a Program Associate with IRI’s Center for Global Impact, working on countering foreign authoritarian influence and conflict prevention and stabilization programming.