Issue Brief

Belts, Roads, and Battlegrounds: Chinese Outbound Initiatives in Conflict and Post-Conflict Settings

in Program

The tallest building in Ethiopia, the African Union’s (AU) sleek new headquarters, is perhaps the most symbolic of Chinese involvement in overseas peace and security affairs. Constructed at a reported cost of more than $200 million,2 the building towers over the nearby Nyerere Peace and Security Building built with the support of German aid and the construction site of an annex being built by a Chinese company. The building itself offers African officials everything needed to conduct their business, including Lenovo computers for every African delegation to the AU. Perhaps also suggestive of Chinese provision of aid, though, a tour of the building reveals almost no information about China’s involvement in its construction. When the author visited in November of 2016, tour guides were not able to answer questions regarding the cost of the building, name the Chinese company involved in the construction, or describe the role that African countries played in the design of the building, and the building did not feature a space for visitors to readily obtain this information.

Such is the nature of Chinese involvement in international development broadly, and its growing involvement in peace and security affairs. On the one hand, Chinese aid projects are arguably now more physically visible than aid projects supported by any other aid provider: Across the developing world, China is supporting massive infrastructure projects, and the construction of government buildings and stadiums. On the other hand, China’s aid is more opaque when it comes to the available data: China has not joined platforms such as the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), nor has it started sharing information with the Aid Transparency Index. It does not formally publish information on the types of projects that it is supporting across the world. As a result, Publish What You Fund places China second to last in its ranks of aid transparency of 46 donor states and organizations, just above the United Arab Emirates.

This trend continues when it comes to consultations and coordination mechanisms. While there have been some isolated cases of experiments involving donor coordination, diplomatic communities in most countries remain perplexed as to the nature of China’s aid priorities.
While specific information on China’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) remains difficult to obtain, a growing number of Chinese and non-Chinese sources have started to map the dramatic emergence of China as a leading provider of overseas assistance, and as a key player in post-conflict settings. In terms of official information, China’s White Paper on Foreign Aid in 2011 released by the State Council documents that ODA increased by nearly 30 percent from 2004 until 2009, and that the vast majority of concessionary loans in 2009 (61 percent) support infrastructure projects.

In the absence of systematic official information, one of the best sources available is the AidData project at the College of William & Mary, which offers a comprehensive catalogue of projects identified through publicly available sources. The project’s geo-spatial tool reveals that there are significant Chinese aid projects located in nearly every part of Africa experiencing social conflict, and in the majority of armed conflict zones. A growing academic literature spanning political science and area studies further documents China’s emergence as a top development partner for a wide range of countries experiencing armed conflict, civil war, or civil resistance, including South Sudan, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Republic of the Congo, and Zimbabwe.

As China’s bilateral involvement in the development–security nexus has grown, its involvement in multilateral peace and security affairs has also kept pace. At present, China deploys more peacekeepers to the United Nations than any other member of the Security Council, and ranks second in terms of its financial contribution (10.29 percent). Since initiating involvement in peacekeeping over 25 years ago, China has sent more than 30,000 blue helmets overseas. In 2016, increasing signs have emerged that China aspires to take a leadership position vis-à-vis the global peacekeeping efforts. Rumors going around the U.N. suggest that it is presently jockeying for leadership over the U.N.’s Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), which has been controlled by the U.S. and France since its inception. While rumors remain largely unconfirmed, China’s unprecedented support for a high-level training for peacekeeping officials in Beijing in 2016 has been understood by observers as a sign of China’s rising interest in the leadership role.

China is also increasingly involved globally in peacemaking – sending Special Envoys to a range of African, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian hot spots to attempt to contribute to the resolution of armed conflict. In 2011, China sent an envoy to Sudan to engage in promoting peace talks between the government and the South Sudanese opposition. Following the split, China has continued to deploy envoys to engage in shuttle diplomacy between the two countries around resource sharing. This role has also been prominent in Northern Myanmar, where China and the United Nations jointly observed cease-fire talks between the Myanmar government and the Kachi Independence Army in 2014 and 2015. In Syria and the Middle East, China has also greatly deepened its support for engagement with opposition parties and separatist movements,
signaling a growing intent to broker peace. Another key area in which China plays a critical role is around policing of the high seas, where it has been leading the effort to counter piracy off the coast of Somalia.

Click here for the full series “Changing Landscape of Assistance to Conflict-Affected States: Emerging and Traditional Donors and Opportunities for Collaboration.

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