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USJI Voice

USJI Voice Vol.20

The Opportune Moment: US-China-Japan Cooperation in Conflict-affected Regions

Dr. Miwa Hirono
Ritsumeikan University

Heated discussions about the South China Sea and East China Sea overshadow attention paid to many important developments in how the great powers are dealing with another key international security issue—that of humanitarian catastrophes in the Global South. Such catastrophes, deriving from civil wars and/or natural disasters, exacerbate insecurity in Africa and Asia—a region of key strategic importance to many great powers, including China, Japan, and the United States.

China has shifted its policy from one of indifference towards and disinterest in regional conflicts in the 1980s and 1990s, to a more active engagement in the 2000s and onwards, following the Chinese government’s “go abroad” strategy in 2001, which led many of China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to invest in resource-rich regions in the Global South. China and its SOEs can no longer afford sticking to a simplistic “business is business” approach and ignoring political and security issues on the ground. Political instability and insecurity adversely affect China’s political and economic investments in various regions. Furthermore, the Chinese government’s effort to address peace and security in conflict-affected regions help it enhance its international image and prestige as an emerging “responsible power”, which is prerequisite for a successful rise of China in the Global South without raising too much weariness of the rapidly raising profile of the country by the Western powers as well as conflict-affected regions themselves.

China has been expanding its role in conflict-affected regions, by means of peacekeeping and mediation, for example. Such expansion, however, has brought to China a new question: How can China actively contribute to peace and security in conflict-affected regions, which may contradict the principle of non-interference that China has upheld as a foreign policy pillar since the 1950s? This question can be translated into the specific context of peacekeeping and mediation. How should Chinese peacekeepers strike pre-emptively in the face of imminent threat to civilian lives? How should China engage with rebel groups in its effort as a mediator when it needs to give priority to government-to-government relations according to the principle of non-interference?

These challenges provide an opportunity for the US and Japan to cooperate with China in conflict-affected regions. Such cooperation may lead to success in peacekeeping and mediation, and thereby help China enhance its image as a responsible great power. Further, cooperation will help the three countries (re)build trust amongst each other, and encourage the Chinese government to maintain a policy of peaceful development. When distrust between China and other major powers such as the US and Japan looms, establishing multiple networks with the Chinese military and foreign policy communities by taking the opportunity when engaged in conflict resolution is extremely important.

1. UN Peacekeeping
China is the 12th biggest troop contributor to UN peacekeeping operations in the world, and the largest in the five permanent security council members (as of September 2016). Financially, too, US, China and Japan are the three biggest contributors to the UN peacekeeping budget in 2016 (respectively, 28.57%, 10.29%, and 9.68%). China’s contribution to UN peacekeeping will be further bolstered in future, as Xi Jinping pledged at the peacekeeping summit in September 2015, when China will “take the lead in setting up a permanent peacekeeping police squad and building a peacekeeping standby force of 8,000 troops”. Concrete discussion of this idea has just begun to take place at the UN. Given the reality of today’s peacekeeping, in which there is no peace to keep, such a standby force should develop the skills and knowledge needed to operate in civil-war contexts.

Operations in civil-war contexts, however, are precisely the key challenge that China is grappling with now. How can Chinese peacekeepers ensure their safety and implement UN mandates, including on the protection of civilians, while maintaining the principle of non-interference? China has contributed what it calls a “security force” of 50-strong infantry (often called “combat troops”) in Mali since 2013, and an infantry battalion of 700 to South Sudan since April 2014. The contribution of security force is a new development in China’s peacekeeping in the face of an imminent threat in conflict areas. However, one Chinese peacekeeper was killed in Mali in June 2016, and two in South Sudan in July 2016. Further, the consent of the host state to UN peacekeeping, the very basis on which China claims it is still upholding the principle of non-interference, is often based on shifting sand, as has been seen in South Sudan, which “has repeatedly obstructed” the UN peacekeeping mission.

It is not that China has the solution to what seems to be the impossible task of protecting civilians in the midst of fierce civil wars, but China’s experience in operating in Mali and South Sudan provides an opportunity for cooperation and exchange between China and Japan. Japan passed new security bills in 2015, leading to planning to send Ground Self-Defence Force troops to South Sudan to protect civilians and UN staff. China—the fifth biggest contributor to the UN Mission in South Sudan (following India, Rwanda, Nepal and Ethiopia)—is a clear candidate from whom Japan should obtain “lessons learnt” from past operations. Furthermore, the US has skills, expertise and experience on how to conduct robust operations in wars—which China and Japan have not engaged in since the 1979 Sino-Vietnam war and WWII respectively. The three major donors to UN peacekeeping should share knowledge and experience on lessons learnt from actual operations in South Sudan, and from general discussions about how infantry can engage in robust operations on the ground on international missions. This can be achieved by, for example, establishing joint peacekeeping research centers in Beijing and Tokyo, in order to institutionalize 1.5-track military exchanges amongst the three countries. Meetings between political leaders of the three countries should include in their agenda how to promote such exchange and to set up regular dialogue on peacekeeping. Such effort will also help the successful establishment of the 8,000-strong standby force in accordance to the reality of today’s UN peacekeeping.

2. Conflict Mediation
While various contributions to UN peacekeeping are a welcome trend, UN peacekeeping itself reflects “a minimalist approach” to conflict resolution, as it does not necessarily stop civil wars—the root causes of conflicts. The South Sudan example is quite telling in that regard. Conflict mediation is a more direct effort to stop conflicts, and this is what China has begun working on not only in South Sudan, but also in Myanmar and Afghanistan.

It is a big step for China to deal directly with rebels, as China’s principle of non-interference has meant that it deals with governments only. However, over the last couple of years, China’s diplomacy has further evolved to include conflict mediation. The roles of China and the US are critical, particularly to the civil war in South Sudan. Neighbouring states such as Sudan and Uganda have key stakes in South Sudan; China has economic leverage in Sudan and the US has political leverage in Uganda. China and the US should cooperate and coordinate their mediation efforts with regional countries, and the US should also share its experience in conflict mediation with the new mediator of the twenty-first century—China.

3. Conclusion
These are only a few examples of how China, Japan and the United States can cooperate in relation to conflict-affected regions. The three countries have so much in common, as top donors for UN peacekeeping and top economic powers who need energy resources. The interests shared by the three powers in those regions are so great that pursuing absolute gains through cooperation is more beneficial to all parties—including conflict-affected regions and the major powers—than the realist zero-sum game approach.


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