China, Russia And The Future Of Peacebuilding – Analysis


By Dr Jiayi Zhou, Dr Jaïr van der Lijn and Dr Jingdong Yuan

Peacebuilding is an evolving concept and body of practice. Different views on how best to pursue peacebuilding—broadly referring to activities aimed at preventing the outbreak, escalation and recurrence of conflict, as well as at creating the conditions for sustainable peace—have been debated by United Nations bodies, national governments and civil society actors. Key UN bodies have followed an approach to peacebuilding that prioritizes liberal values such as political inclusivity, good governance, the promotion of human rights and the involvement of civil society in addition to state authorities. 

This traditional ‘governance-first’ peacebuilding approach has for some time been under pressure and critique from various sides, including from within the West, concerning: its efficacy in ensuring security and sustaining peace, accusations of double standards, the sidelining of local perspectives, and a disconnect between liberal rhetoric and illiberal implementation. More recently, non-Western and often non-liberal state actors have become increasingly active in the peacebuilding space. Among them are China and Russia, permanent members of the UN Security Council, and key powers in the increasingly fragmented geopolitical landscape within which peacebuilding activities take place. Understanding the impacts of China and Russia on present and future peacebuilding, however, requires understanding not only the similarities but also the significant differences between their approaches.

China’s approach: ‘development first’

In UN forums, China’s approach to peacebuilding has been informed in part by its long-standing non-interference principle, stressing the importance of the host state’s consent for peacebuilding interventions. It places more emphasis on sovereignty and regime security and has tended to downplay the protection of civilians in armed conflict, although China does contribute significant financial and troop resources to UN peace operations. 

Since 2016 China has sponsored the UN Peace and Development Trust Fund, which has been used for conflict prevention and state capacity-building activities as well as peacekeeping support. Beyond trade and aid, China’s own security footprint in conflict-affected settings remains limited, however, and even conceptual work on how China might develop its own independent approach to peacebuilding is nascent at best. Indeed, China lacks a domesticated policy concept of the term peacebuilding—using jianshe heping (建设和平) almost exclusively in reference to UN-led processes, frameworks and institutions. 

However, in both UN debates about peacebuilding and its own pronouncements, distinct elements of a Chinese approach are apparent. First, China stresses that poverty and underdevelopment are root causes of conflict and insecurity; economic development is hence considered a key element in fostering peace. This ‘developmental peace’ approach, as certain Chinese scholars have termed it, has featured in Chinese statements in the UN Security Council arguing that poverty alleviation is among ‘the most important tasks in conflict prevention’, as well as in high-level pronouncements and official language regarding China’s Belt and Road InitiativeGlobal Development Initiative and Global Security Initiatives

China has indeed grown tremendously as a donor and financier in developing and fragile states, becoming active not only in post-conflict reconstruction but also—based on its own developmental peace precepts—in conflict prevention. But while its emphasis on development as the foundation for sustained peace does not in theory contradict the traditional discourse of peacebuilding, China’s overseas development footprint tends to be statist or regime-centric and infrastructure- and commerce-oriented, with little or no political conditionality on issues such as human rights and good governance. In this respect, the Chinese approach can be compared to those of other East Asian donors. Chinese activities involve much less support for and participation by civil society, in contrast to the traditional principlesfor development assistance followed by Organisation for Co-operation and Development (OECD) donor countries. There is also evidence that Chinese aid may facilitate government repression, directly posing a challenge to traditional peacebuilding’s emphasis on political accountability. 

However, beyond an emphasis on development and a tendency to prefer top-down approaches, no distinctive, clearly defined Chinese approach to peacebuilding has emerged. Hence, whether and how China is reshaping or challenging the traditional peacebuilding model is still an open question. Western concerns about the future of peacebuilding are, however, also predicated on anxieties about the rise and growing influence of China itself, as its illiberal political system per se challenges the normative foundations of the liberal international order that Western actors have operated within and indeed dominated. 

Russia’s approach: ‘security first’ 

Like China, Russia also lacks a well-developed and domesticated policy concept of peacebuilding, reserving the term mirostroitel’stvo (миростроительство) for discussions in multilateral forums. Within UN debates, its approach is similar to China’s in that it pays limited attention to the governance aspects of democratic accountability, civil society and human rights. In position documents, Russia has even referred to the inclusion of civil society in UN intergovernmental processes related to peace and security as something that ‘infringe(s) on the sovereign rights of states’. 

Russia’s approach shares China’s emphasis on state sovereignty and host state consent. However, Russia’s position on sovereignty is also marked by a wide gap between discourse and practice; indeed, several Russian military operations in its immediate neighbourhood have violated those same precepts, with its full-scale invasion of Ukraine—which it justified in terms of ‘peacekeeping’—being its most egregious example. 

Even at the level of discourse, however, Russia’s position is in several respects starkly different to China’s. In UN Security Council debates on conflict prevention, conflict management and peacebuilding, Russia has posited what might be deemed a ‘security-first’ theory of change. It has argued that ‘economic difficulties do not automatically lead to insecurity’ and that stabilizing the security situation leads to improved developmental and societal outcomes in a given country—‘not the other way around’. Russia’s stress on the context specificity of conflict drivers also further underlies and justifies its highly minimalist position on the prevention aspects of the UN’s peacebuilding agenda. 

Russia’s regime-centric security focus is also borne out by its own military presence in several conflict settings. While Russia participates very little in UN peace operations, it has intervened in conflicts both in its immediate neighbourhood and further afield in Africa and the Middle East. Its operations evince what some scholars have labelled a coercive mediation approach. Private military and security companies such as the Wagner Group (now reorganized as the Africa Corps) have carried out short-term operations aimed at stabilization, counterterrorism, and the suppression or elimination of armed groups that challenge the authority of the host state, ignoring wider political or social grievances. Such activities, previously unofficial, are now being officially directed by the Russian Ministry of Defence. 

Russia has made itself a key player in the space of conflict management and stabilization, with much less interest in addressing the fuller UN peacebuilding agenda, from development and conflict prevention to post-conflict recovery and reconstruction. Its partisan military interventions and activities have demonstrable negative impacts on the liberal tenets of good governance, bottom-up accountability and human rights. Gaps and inconsistencies between rhetoric and action also suggest that Russia engages in fragile settings opportunistically rather than offering a principled approach or paradigm to fostering peace.  

Implications for the future of peacebuilding

Chinese and Russian approaches to peacebuilding are part of the evolving and indeed contested landscape of international peace and security. While the two share certain commonalities—most notably, emphasis on the importance of top-down governance and state sovereignty—they take distinct and even contrasting positions on the root causes and remedies of conflict and insecurity. 

China’s ‘development-first’ and Russia’s ‘security-first’ approaches amplify existing debates about peacebuilding as it has traditionally been pursued, as well as the future of the ‘governance-first’ approach that liberal actors have championed (normatively if not always in practice). Indeed, over the past few years peacebuilding has become increasingly directed towards strengthening state governance structures and the extension of state authority, which is arguably a shift in the governance-first approach that brings it closer to Chinese and Russian state-centric approaches. More, however, still needs to be understood regarding how China and Russia’s peacebuilding approaches play out on the ground; how and how far they interact with, contradict or complement traditional approaches; and whether they can in fact contribute to sustained peace. 

However, China and Russia are only two of many emerging—and increasingly consequential—actors in peacebuilding. With more options in terms of the range of international partners and activities on offer, recipient governments are thus able to exert greater agency in peacebuilding as it plays out on the ground. In other words, peacebuilding outcomes will be shaped not only by the different approaches of various external interveners, but also by the priorities and adaptations of the states and societies for whom peacebuilding activities purport to serve.

About the authors:

  • Dr Jiayi Zhou is a Researcher in the SIPRI Conflict, Peace and Security Programme.
  • Dr Jaïr van der Lijn is a Senior Researcher and Director of the SIPRI Peace Operations and Conflict Management Programme.
  • Dr Jingdong Yuan is a Senior Researcher and Director of the SIPRI China and Asia Security Programme.

Source: This article was published by SIPRI


SIPRI is an independent international institute dedicated to research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament. Established in 1966, SIPRI provides data, analysis and recommendations, based on open sources, to policymakers, researchers, media and the interested public. Based in Stockholm, SIPRI also has a presence in Beijing, and is regularly ranked among the most respected think tanks worldwide.

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