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Subscriber: null; date: 15 November 2018

The State, Development, and Humanitarianism: China’s Shaping of the Trajectory of R2P

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter outlines China’s major concerns during the various phases of R2P’s development and determines which of Beijing’s positions are most likely to influence its efforts to shape the future trajectory of R2P. First, it discusses R2P’s normative characteristics to demonstrate how these have facilitated the Chinese government’s ability to play a shaping role. Next, it illustrates China’s preferences in the definition and development of R2P, before explaining these preferences. The chapter’s main argument is that Beijing’s beliefs in the primacy of the state have led it to promote the notion that humanitarian outcomes and peaceful state–society relations are best realized through state-led economic development and especially through the building of a state’s infrastructural capacity. These beliefs are sufficiently strong to sustain an approach to R2P that will overwhelmingly focus attention on economic, longer-term forms of preventive action rather than on the building of human rights-related institutions.

Keywords: China, responsibility to protect, economic development, paternalism, state primacy, humanitarian outcomes

The Chinese government participated directly in the deliberations that led to the responsibility to protect’s (R2P) formal acceptance in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document (WSOD).1 After a considerable period of negotiation it voted in support of UN Security Council resolution 1674 that referenced R2P in the context of the protection of civilians in armed conflict,2 and it has sanctioned UN military interventions in other states, sometimes for humanitarian reasons.3 As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Beijing has endorsed the passage of Council resolutions that in the period from 2005 to the current day often remind states facing internal conflict that their primary responsibility is to protect their populations.4 It has also participated in UN General Assembly interactive dialogues held to discuss a series of UN Secretary-General reports on aspects of R2P’s elaboration and implementation. Thus, unlike with a number of other global norms, China has been actively involved in norm creation and elaboration, in this case in the development of an idea of sovereignty that emphasizes the protective duties of states. In specific terms, R2P states that populations should be protected from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. However, the R2P norm also avers that in the event of a failure on the part of any state to provide such protection, then that responsibility is passed to the international community. In regard to this element of R2P, Beijing’s preferred understanding of responsibility is that international assistance should be given in ways that the failing state determines is necessary in order to help it fulfil its protective mandate. Only in the most exceptional and narrowly-defined circumstances should military intervention for protection purposes be considered.

This chapter demonstrates China’s major concerns during these various phases of R2P development with a view to determining which of its deep-seated positions are most likely to influence the arguments it will bring to bear on the future trajectory of (p. 933) R2P. It begins with a discussion of R2P’s normative characteristics in order to show how these have facilitated the Chinese government’s ability to play a shaping role. Next, it discusses China’s preferences in the definition and development of R2P, before moving on to a final section that explains why it has promoted these particular policy responses in reference to this idea of responsible sovereignty.

With respect to the future of this norm, the chapter’s main argument is that Beijing’s paternalistic view of the state as well as its beliefs about state primacy translates into a position that humanitarian outcomes are best realized through state-led economic development and the building of state capacity. China’s leaders argue for a causal link between development and peace and that poverty and underdevelopment often lead to humanitarian crises—beliefs that are sufficiently strong to sustain its positions on R2P over the next several years. Notably, this is an approach that focuses on long-term economic change and less on shorter-term implementation measures such as the establishment of early warning mechanisms or the creation of national human rights institutions.

The chapter also argues that China faces little risk of being singled out as a state that is blocking this particular norm—an issue for a country that analysts have recognized can be influenced by concerns about its international image5—because most other UN Member States have similarly put emphasis on the preventive aspects of R2P. More parochially and more speculatively, state primacy is underpinned by Beijing’s own experience of being the target of international condemnation for human rights transgressions, especially after the Tian’anmen bloodshed of June 1989. Given the current repressive tactics it is using against its minority populations in Tibet and Xinjiang, this probably invokes a sense that its own actions at some point in the future could invite an intensified level of condemnation. Despite debates in China among a minority of scholars that indicate a certain dismay at the narrowness of the government’s official interpretation of R2P, those who voice more expansive or solidarist positions are not likely to have their recommendations taken up.6 The leadership of a one-party state that deals reasonably well with its own socio-economic reform agenda will have yet more confidence in the idea that it is the capable state led by a capable government that is the best guarantor of protection for a country’s citizens. A leadership that fails in its reform efforts to the extent that it generates higher levels of unrest at elite and broader societal levels will similarly prefer to be operating in a world that has accepted a contingent and circumscribed version of R2P.

R2P Characteristics and Shaping Opportunities

R2P, as outlined in Paragraphs 138–40 of the 2005 WSOD, has rightly been described as both a complex as well as a composite norm.7 As a so-called ‘principle norm’ it has a malleability that is greater than in the case of most better-defined ‘treaty norms’. This (p. 934) makes R2P closer to the idea of ‘soft law’. It also means it is clustered with or nested within other norms. In the case of R2P—a norm that deals with the idea of sovereign responsibility—those clusters include the powerful related norms of sovereign equality and non-interference in internal affairs.

This particular clustering of sovereignty as responsibility alongside these fundamental norms of international order have powerfully influenced the norm’s articulation and development, inviting controversy during its institutionalization and implementation and contestation over its meaning. For example, Paragraph 139 of the WSOD states that ‘national authorities’ must be ‘manifestly failing’ in their responsibility to protect their populations from the four crimes specified in the R2P formulation, before the international community is required to respond. What constitutes manifest failure inevitably invites delay, disagreement, and debate. Paragraph 139 also notes that in the event of a failure effectively to use peaceful measures to prevent massive atrocities from occurring, states should be ‘prepared to take collective action’ on a ‘case-by-case basis’. This represents a rejection of the idea of an automatic triggering of response and an unwillingness to use the experience of mass crimes to develop an agreed set of criteria. The norm has come to have three pillars associated with it, outlined in detail during the July 2009 debate of the Secretary-General’s proposals for implementation.8 The first of these pillars emphasizes that it is the state’s responsibility above all to protect its population from the four mass atrocity crimes, and the second of which stresses the responsibility of international actors to help states build institutional and other capacities to aid in a state’s preventive efforts. It is only the third pillar which invites the international community, via the Security Council, to consider action beyond long-term capacity-building to help address a situation of manifest state failure to prevent mass atrocities. Thus, it is a veto-ridden body that is afforded the primary but highly qualified responsibility to determine how to react and, in the event that peaceful means fail, to adopt more coercive measures designed to stop the occurrence of widespread violence. This qualified phrasing, which has served to reduce the solidarist elements of the norm embodied in the idea of an international responsibility to protect, reinforces a sense that the three pillars should be understood as sequential with the greatest weight being given to pillar 1.

These and other of the provisions associated with R2P invite contestation over interpretation and a sense that the norm as presently formulated does not solve the issue of when the responsibility to protect has tipped away from the state in question and towards the international community. Monica Serrano and Thomas G. Weiss, both involved in R2P’s development, have concluded that the international community is at the point where it can condemn, but not agree on a common course of action even in the face of mass atrocities.9 Indeed, that disagreement has been present at every stage of the process of norm development and implementation. Moreover, this is not simply contestation among states, but also among non-state actors, and within UN agencies. Some of these actors and agencies are concerned that their work may be tainted by association with an idea still strongly linked with coercive intervention, and others believe that adding the R2P lens to their institutional remit probably burdens rather than facilitates their efforts.10

(p. 935) The process that led to the articulation of R2P within the WSOD is also instructive in showing what shaping opportunities have presented themselves to China, as well as to other states, as the R2P idea has unfolded. The antecedents to that document have been relayed many times, often starting by highlighting the work of Francis M. Deng and colleagues who promoted in the mid-1990s the idea of sovereignty as responsibility.11 The unfolding of this process over the decade after that has implied some linearity to norm development, even though that does not reflect the twists and turns that have been involved, and the opportunities for pivotal forms of norm-shaping that have been presented. Despite what has in fact been a non-linear process, the term consensus has come to be closely associated with the WSOD in part because it was debated at a World Summit that was held on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, and was the largest gathering of Heads of State and Government in history—some 150 heads of state attended. The fact that the UN General Assembly adopted the associated resolution without a vote has given the 2005 resolution and the WSOD a status that makes it appear especially sacrosanct and has masked in fact a contentious and rather chaotic period in the lead-up to the adoption of that document, including those sections that dealt with R2P. Certainly there cannot be said to be a deep consensus behind the idea that sovereignty has been redefined in significant ways. Also obscured in the attention that has been devoted in the literature to the WSOD’s association with R2P is that this reform document contained many other elements requiring the agreement of UN Member States, including the design of a new Human Rights Council, a Peacebuilding Commission, the highly contentious matter of Security Council reform, potential reinterpretation of UN Charter articles relating to the use of force, as well as R2P.12

The lack of a strong consensus behind R2P, together with the need to focus on many other difficult issues in the lead-up to the World Summit, have meant that states wary of the norm’s more solidarist elements have found the space and several important allies ready to work with them to propel R2P along a path that may not bear much relationship to the views of those norm entrepreneurs active at earlier stages of the framing of this idea. Certainly there is a distance between the WSOD’s formulation and the idea as outlined in the Canadian-led International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) report of 2001, which first coined the term R2P, and which led the UN’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change to state in its report that there was an ‘emerging norm that there is a collective international responsibility to protect’.13 In fact, as Marc Pollentine has noted, there was a ‘vociferous group of hostile opponents to R2P who repeatedly spoke against it’ in the 2005 negotiations that led to the WSOD, including ‘Egypt, Algeria, India, Pakistan, Cuba, Venezuela, Jamaica, Belarus and Iran’. He goes on, ‘Russia was also generally opposed, and like China would have been more than happy to have seen no reference to R2P.’14 However, Pollentine also notes that despite consistently negative positions, neither China nor Russia believed that the R2P as eventually formulated in 2005 was ‘sufficiently problematic to justify outright opposition’.15 This suggests that some shaping had already taken place to their satisfaction, while they could take some comfort from the fact that higher levels of opposition (p. 936) to a redefinition of sovereignty expressed by Egypt, India, and others would likely continue as the norm was further elaborated during UN General Assembly debates.

China’s Official Positions on R2P

Why did China not regard the 2005 WSOD’s agreed text on R2P which conditioned the concept of sovereignty to be anything more than something it would dislike rather than something it would work hard to block entirely? Pollentine argues that there were three main reasons. First, there is the matter of priorities: China was more concerned about the part of the reform document that emphasized the redesign of the UN Commission on Human Rights and its replacement with a UN Human Rights Council.16 Beijing wanted to ensure there would be no membership criteria for the new human rights body, that members would be elected by a simple majority of the General Assembly, rather than by a two-thirds vote, and that there would be a geographical redistribution of seats that favoured larger representation for Asian and African states.17 Then there were the features of R2P which attracted the support of powerful others: Beijing was comforted by the understanding that the response and reaction to ongoing atrocities would be considered on a ‘case-by-case’ basis and that no detailed criteria covering the circumstances for international intervention would be developed—both ways of removing any automatic triggering of action and both positions also supported by the United States and Russia. China’s position on criteria was relatively straightforward and easy to understand in the wake of developments involving Iraq in 2003 and Kosovo in 1999. As Pollentine puts it, Beijing feared that criteria would be useful to those who were willing to countenance intervention outside of the Security Council,18 whereas the United States was more concerned about reductions in its strategic autonomy were criteria to be developed. Neither would China countenance the position that R2P entailed a legal obligation to act. As its UN representatives put it, it should be seen as a ‘concept’ not a ‘rule of international law’ thus further diluting any sense of automaticity.19 Again, the United States supported this position, the US–UN Ambassador, John Bolton, arguing in a letter sent to Member States in the lead-up to the World Summit, ‘We do not accept that either the United Nations as a whole or the Security Council, or individual states, have an obligation to intervene under international law. We also believe that what the United Nations does in a particular situation should depend on the specific circumstances.’20

The UN Security Council is also recognized in Paragraph 139 as the authoritative decision-making body, an outcome that ensures Beijing an ability to veto or threaten to veto a move towards coercive intervention and that subjects any action that is taken outside of the Security Council framework to a loss of legitimacy. China also supported the notion that regional organizations would play a role alongside the UN Security Council in deciding next steps in any instance where peaceful means had failed and national governments were failing to protect their populations from one or other of the four crimes. In this regard, regional support, for China, potentially constrains pillar 3 actions (p. 937) because it provides an additional layer of consent. It was regional support for the no-fly zone in Libya that China claims persuaded it to abstain on resolution 1973,21 and African Union (AU) support that led it to get more active in persuading Sudan to accept the hybrid UN–AU deployment in Darfur in 2006 and 2007.22

Above all, China has been particularly vocal in placing emphasis on the preventive pillar 1, has sought to strictly limit the notion of R2P’s application to cases that can be identified as relating to the four crimes, and has worked hard to reinforce the idea that there must be host state or regional state consent. At the UN General Assembly debate in July 2009 on the Secretary-General’s report on R2P implementation, China’s UN representatives stressed the compatibility between R2P, state sovereignty, and non-interference in that the ‘government of a given state bears the primary responsibility for protecting its citizens’. China finds many allies for this particular position, including within the Asia-Pacific region.23 It has made use of the fiction that the WSOD represented a powerful consensus to argue consistently and forcefully that R2P would only apply to the four crimes outlined in that document. And while Beijing has accepted that it is legitimate for international actors to stress a humanitarian concern for those suffering from wide-scale abuse—that such evidence of abuse would create a ‘common aspiration and legitimate demand’ to ‘ease and curtail the crisis’—those aspirations had to respect the provisions of the UN Charter, as well as the ‘views of the government and regional organizations concerned’. It has also been firm on the matter of sequencing. As its Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Liu Zhenmin, has reminded Member States, ‘all peaceful means’ had to have been exhausted before coercive measures could even be contemplated.24

Explaining China’s Positions and their Implications for the Future of R2P

In an extensive survey of state responses to R2P in a wide variety of UN forums, Jennifer Welsh has concluded that there are four main objections that have been articulated in the period leading to the World Summit, and in subsequent years.25 First, some states are self-regarding and fear that R2P will be turned against them. India, for example, nearly scuttled final agreement at the 2005 World Summit, making reference to the issue of Kashmir.26 Second, states have argued that double standards abound in world politics, and that R2P will only be applied when the interests of the powerful are engaged. Third, some states are reluctant to countenance a military solution on mainly consequentialist grounds: any decision on the use of force for humanitarian reasons runs the risk of making matters worse. Fourth, and perhaps most powerfully, is the concern that an attack on the norms that cluster alongside R2P, particularly that of sovereign equality, is dangerous to world order. One element associated with the notion of sovereign equality is that, as Welsh describes it, ‘states have the authority to make and enforce rules (p. 938) within a particular territory, therefore limiting the reach of foreign laws or external authorities’.27 More broadly, sovereign equality makes more difficult ‘the move from a horizontal system of sovereign states that demonstrate mutual respect, to a hierarchical system where conduct is subject to oversight and punishment by an unspecified and unaccountable agent of the “international community”’. She goes on, ‘The effort to preserve legal egalitarianism—even if an empirical fiction—flows from a deeper desire to maintain diversity and pluralism within the international system.’28

These reactions to R2P have influenced China’s stance, though some to a greater degree than others. In addition, the leadership’s beliefs about the mutually supportive relationship between the state, development, and humanitarian outcomes shape particular responses to implementing R2P. The repeated references to these causal beliefs are also likely to mean that its rhetoric and behaviour with respect to R2P is unlikely to change over the next decade.

Regime security aspects are probably the least of China’s concerns, though they cannot be dismissed entirely. Rana Mitter, for example, has argued that the Chinese government was ‘very worried’ by NATO intervention in Kosovo: ‘The scenario in which a government attempting to put down ethnic conflict on its own territory could then be subjected to attack by NATO was deeply troubling for the Beijing leadership, which has separatist problems of its own in Xinjiang and Tibet.’29 However, as far as can be ascertained, China’s leaders, unlike India’s, have not made direct reference in the last decade or so to the idea that their country could be caught in the R2P headlights and threatened with humanitarian intervention, perhaps as a result of widespread repression leading to severe loss of life in its unstable provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang.

Nonetheless, if direct military intervention in response to repression inside China is not a major fear in Beijing, in a number of instances and in a number of policy areas Chinese behaviour has suggested that its policy officials do have a desire to protect the country’s international image—an image that could be damaged were its repressive actions to attract international censure.30 For example, Beijing worked hard during the redesign of the Human Rights Council to restrict the use of condemnatory country-specific resolutions, even standing alone to try to push through a higher voting threshold for the introduction of such resolutions. Beijing had been the target of draft condemnatory resolutions in the UN Commission on Human Rights for several years after the Tian’anmen bloodshed of 4 June 1989, and used its economic and political influence to block votes that would have ensured a discussion of these resolutions.31 Thus, its conservative stance on R2P in the past and future might relate less to a fear of intervention in its territory for humanitarian purposes, and more because of its intense dislike of having been singled out on human rights grounds in the recent past.

With respect to Welsh’s second point on double standards, this too has been a regular reference point in Chinese governmental and scholarly descriptions of global politics. Similarly, Chinese statements on humanitarian intervention and R2P claim an inconsistency in the international response, often depicting this inconsistency as endemic in relations between the West and the developing world. As one senior diplomat put it in 2013: ‘We certainly should not be indifferent to the tragedy of genocide, but we should (p. 939) avoid it being manipulated and taken advantage of by the great powers, and mostly being taken as an excuse for intervention and aggression.’32 Ruan Zongze of the Foreign Ministry-related think tank, China Institute of International Studies, has put it far more bluntly: ‘since the mid-1990s, the West has dished out one after another such theories as “humanitarian intervention”, “the supremacy of human rights over sovereignty” and “exceptions to non-interference in internal affairs” in an attempt to provide grounds for interfering in internal affairs of other countries’. He went on to ask: ‘Who should be protected and who should be left alone? And how to deal with double standards’ pointing to the US failure to act against Bahrain in February 2011, because it is a US ally, the US bases the headquarters of its Fifth Fleet in the country, and also has an Air Force base—facilities that Washington can use to control this ‘oil-rich Gulf region’.33

These beliefs tie firmly into Welsh’s fourth point on sovereign equality. If Chinese officials view double standards as being rife in international politics, and assert that decisions on humanitarian questions are primarily taken on political rather than moral grounds, then China, as a former victim of Western colonialism and encroachment, perceives it as essential that it protect its status as a legal equal of the most powerful states in the system.34 Moreover, Beijing extends this argument to argue that sovereign equality also means that we should respect diverse cultural traditions and a pluralist order. President Hu Jintao’s elaboration of the ‘theory of harmonious world’ argued for mutual respect and consultations on an equal basis in order to promote democracy in international relations. Countries should ‘respect the diversity of the world, and make joint efforts to advance human civilization’.35 China’s later articulation of the need to establish a ‘new type of great power relations’ also contains similar sentiments. As then Vice-President Xi Jinping described this term in 2012 and subsequently as President, it means mutual restraint, mutual respect, mutual understanding, and the development of cooperative and constructive relations between countries that have different political systems, historical and cultural backgrounds, and different levels of economic development.36 At the informal interactive General Assembly dialogue on R2P held in September 2014, China’s diplomats repeated that measures needed to be in accordance with local conditions and that there was ‘no standard model’.37

Chinese officials have also made many strong statements on consequentialist grounds against the use of force and in favour of mediation and other peaceful means in response to humanitarian crises. In reference to lessons learned from Libya, Le Yucheng, China’s Assistant Foreign Minister, in April 2012 noted the large numbers of civilians that had been killed or displaced as a result of NATO action. He went on: ‘it is evident to the international community that Libya continues to be disunited, that violence continues to rage, and that some regions have even declared their autonomy … it is patent that this kind of “protection” is a failed and irresponsible one applying “protect” as the cover of the brutal “intervention”’. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Chinese government has given its support for the Brazilian notion of ‘Responsibility while Protecting’, and Ruan Zongze has developed ideas on ‘Responsible Protection’ that in part are consequentialist in tone and are not dissimilar from the Brazilian concept.38 In reference to Syria, China’s official position has been to emphasize that ‘military action is no answer’ (p. 940) and that dialogue and negotiation have to be the main means of responding to the severe humanitarian crisis in that country.39

If China is unwilling to concede much on Westphalian understandings of sovereignty, this does not mean that it is indifferent to humanitarian crises and it realizes that there is an expectation that civilians caught up in war should be protected. As Ambassador Liu put it in 2009, his government understood the new challenges facing the crafting of peacekeeping mandates ‘especially as countries began asking for the inclusion of new duties, such as the protection of civilians’.40 China’s authoritative 2005 statement on UN reform noted that ‘When a massive humanitarian crisis occurs, it is the legitimate concern of the international community to ease and defuse the crisis.’ However, Beijing is strict on matters of process, as outlined in that same statement: ‘Any response to such a crisis should strictly conform to the UN Charter and the opinions of the country and the regional organization concerned should be respected … Wherever it involves enforcement actions, there should be more prudence in the consideration of each case.’41

Underlying its positions with respect to such crises is a stated belief that the best way to relieve and reduce the incidence of large-scale human rights violations is to change the relationship between state and society, through economic development and through building the capacity of the government in power. As China’s Special Envoy to Darfur has often argued, the ‘key problem in Darfur is development and poverty as opposed to genocide’. In China’s view, if resource shortages were to be properly dealt with in that country, then conflicts would subside. What this requires is something more than humanitarian assistance and instead the provision of ‘aid for economic and social growth in Sudan’.42 In outlining its position on the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDG), the Beijing government not only takes the respecting of diversity in development models as a guiding principle, but also states that the eradication of poverty and hunger must be the ‘central goal in the Development Agenda beyond 2015’ because these conditions ‘constitute a root cause for conflict, terrorism and environmental degradation’.43 In other official documents, China has reiterated its concern about the ‘safety and security of civilians’ caught up in armed conflict. However, its response to this stresses the importance of development yet again: as outlined by former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, there is a need to focus on the prevention of such conflicts and on the establishment of a peaceful environment through the promotion of ‘sustainable development, [a]‌ harmonious and inclusive society, constructive communication and cooperation, and efficient mechanisms’.44

The form of China’s participation in UN peace operations further underlines the deep-seated nature of these beliefs. Beijing has participated in many operations that can be regarded as intrusive in form and humanitarian in intent, at least in large part. A number of these UN operations have involved the establishment of a liberal, democratic peace involving elections, the promotion of protections for human rights, and the development of the rule of law. Beijing’s participation in such operations attracts plaudits and it is proud of the fact that its force contributions are larger in number than any other permanent UN Security Council member. However, in the debates over these missions, China has tried to hold steadfastly to the concepts of host-state consent and impartiality, (p. 941) and to involve itself in peacekeeping and peacebuilding through development efforts rather than through the promotion of institutional and political protections.45

Of more importance to the argument made here, as Thierry Tardy notes, Beijing believes that development should be the ‘central long-term objective of peacebuilding’—hence its focus in these operations on the building of infrastructure and the improvement of basic medical services. That it stays a long time once it is committed to an operation also suggests that it views peacekeeping and peacebuilding through a development lens. Kamphausen records that, during January to April 2013, China ‘sent its 15th peacekeeping engineer detachment to the [DRC], its 11th peacekeeping engineer battalion to Lebanon, its 16th PLA medical team to Zambia, its 13th peacekeeping force to Liberia, and its 2nd peacekeeping task force to South Sudan’.46 For China, then, strengthening these forms of state capacity and contributing more broadly to the development goals of states—as defined by governments in power—is a route to peace—to peace between governments and society, and peace with neighbours. Miwa Hirono puts it thus: ‘Strengthening the state … [in China’s view] will inevitably enhance the degree of harmony between the state and its people. Infrastructure development is seen as an enduring contribution to people because it augments the capacity of the state’, and China assumes a causal relationship between development and peace.47

Hirono attributes these beliefs to three main sources: Confucianism, anti-Western sentiment, as well as China’s own development experience in the post-Mao period.48 Her overall point is to stress that in the Chinese case, the state is regarded as the main humanitarian actor: it is the political actor that is conceived in China as the moral agent—whatever Chinese citizens may think of the current government in power. In addition, state involvement in humanitarian work ‘furnishes the action with legitimacy’ in a way that other actors, who may be involved in such work, cannot.49 The Confucian legacy, she suggests, emphasizes the importance of the well-ordered state. Most telling in terms of the legitimacy of a particular imperial dynasty was its capacity to deal with natural and human-made disasters. A brief association between the idea of humanitarianism and an advanced, civilized society deriving from Western forms of modernity was replaced in the Maoist period by the idea that humanitarianism had a class character and was a tool to mask the power of Western ‘imperialists’. During the post-Mao period and after Deng Xiaoping’s late 1978 policy of ‘Reform and Opening’ this eventually resulted in the concept of a ‘socialist humanitarianism’ which in turn yielded to the ‘scientific development concept’ and the idea of comprehensive economic, social, and human development to deal with the ills associated with China’s own development model. Internationally, this has resulted in a blurring between the idea of humanitarian assistance and development assistance, hence the kinds of support China offers in UN peace operations, and its preference for particular interpretations of pillars 1 and 2 of R2P.50

Despite the contemporary understanding of the serious structural, social, and environmental problems associated with China’s ‘comprehensive development’ model it forms a powerful example for the way Beijing thinks about the relationship between state capacity, social stability, and humanitarian crises. Since the period of ‘Reform and (p. 942) Opening’, there has been a remarkable resurgence of China’s economy. Double-digit growth rates for three decades or so, only recently slowing to just under 7 per cent, have brought more than 600 million Chinese out of poverty. As China notes, it is ‘the first developing country to achieve the [MDG] poverty reduction goal ahead of schedule’ and it has ‘helped to accelerate the global poverty reduction process and greatly contributed to [the] global endeavor on poverty eradication’.51 The country is now on the verge of becoming the world’s largest economy, and it became the leading exporter of goods after 2009. Moreover, the ‘dawning recognition that China had done well economically without following the Washington Consensus style of economic policy prescription-writing … has given Beijing policy-makers increased confidence in their own approach and increased their willingness to pursue and defend policies that correspond to their own conception of development and their own interests’.52

That path to reform has been gradual, beginning in ways not supported by neo-liberal economic theory since reform of the agricultural sector was initially given priority, and government-led investment concentrated on building infrastructure before the leadership turned to financial sector reforms, the development of an export-led strategy, the welcoming of foreign direct investment, and membership of the World Trade Organization. As Naughton puts it, ‘China consistently builds infrastructure out ahead of demand.’53 He also notes that the state still retains a central role, especially in non-competitive sectors, and in support of local and national champions, and it retains a subsidiary role elsewhere in the economy.54 This suggests China’s determination to manage the social and economic upheavals that come from operating within a globalized economy—what Naughton calls managed market competition.55 Political continuity is also ‘considered to have been vital to maintaining social stability over a period of rapid change’.56 Despite the massive social and economic problems that China faces and the extensive reform agenda that President Xi Jinping has embarked upon, there is a strong sense that its development experience offers some valuable lessons to others. China also has experienced how economic missteps, such as the mishandling of price reform in the late 1980s and workers’ fears that they might lose their ‘iron rice bowl’ of guaranteed benefits, can lead to disharmony within societies. This is seen in Beijing as a major source of the widespread protest movement associated with the Tian’anmen crisis in 1989, which the government put down through repression.57

Alternative Futures?

The argument being made in this chapter is that these beliefs are sufficiently powerful to shape China’s approach to R2P well into the future. However, this does not mean that there is not some differentiation of view on R2P inside China. Tiewa Liu and Haibin Zhang in their extensive survey of the academic literature and of official statements, (p. 943) together with information they have garnered from private interviews with a range of officials on R2P, valuably introduce a continuum of perspectives on R2P from ‘affirmative’ to ‘neutral’ to ‘negative’. Some perspectives (the ‘affirmative’), though these are in the minority, support the view that understandings of sovereignty have changed and need to be more firmly related to human rights protections. Other positions (the ‘neutral’) are more nuanced: this middling group do not support military intervention on humanitarian grounds, but are willing to consider other forms of non-military involvement in support of the human rights principle. A third group (the ‘negative’) argue that the sovereignty principle has to remain ‘superior to the human rights principle at all times’. Some officials within this group consider R2P ‘to be the “old wine” of humanitarian intervention in a “new bottle”’. This group may have been strengthened after the Libyan intervention: according to Liu and Zhang, ‘China’s stance in the Libyan war has been widely considered a mistake, and the role of regional organisations has also been carefully scrutinised.’58

Indeed, none of the officials they interviewed put themselves into the affirmative camp, though some could be described as neutral, whereas among scholars there were a few that saw R2P as customary international law and as an ‘authoritative and operable international norm’. This minority group of intellectuals denied an absolutist view of sovereignty and pointed to China’s ratification of a number of human rights treaties as an indication that non-interference in internal affairs has not been treated by the Chinese government as wholly sacrosanct. However, most scholars are more cautious than this and fall in line with governmental views. A few in fact fall within the negative group and view R2P as still too closely related to military intervention and as an example of Western power politics.

Overall, therefore, there is not much here to suggest that the official Chinese governmental views articulated earlier in this chapter, and backed by a set of domestic beliefs and experiences, will change much in the coming years. Neither is there anything in this Chinese discourse that either challenges what is an essentially paternalistic view of the state, thereby raising questions about China’s real commitment to inclusiveness, or that accepts the tensions involved in building the capacity of a government that has been involved in the widespread abuse of human rights. It is also difficult to accept Liu and Zhang’s argument that China’s expanding foreign interests and the threats sometimes posed to Chinese living overseas may make it more sympathetic to a UN-sanctioned interventionist military force operating to protect Chinese based abroad that have come under attack.59 Beijing is more likely to want international rhetorical support for its own efforts to withdraw its citizens from widespread violence experienced in other countries. Certainly, we should acknowledge an important discussion inside China and with its interlocutors in UN venues about humanitarian action. However, we should also recognize that Beijing is likely to continue to support a circumscribed vision of R2P and will continue to police it in ways that it believes will support governments in power and reinforce state sovereignty rather than undermine it.60


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                                                                      (1.) UN General Assembly 2005, paras. 138–40.

                                                                      (3.) For two among several possible examples, China abstained on resolution 1973, UN Security Council 2011, with respect to Libya and in resolution 841, UN Security Council 1993, supported one of the key resolutions on Haiti that referred to humanitarian crises and the mass displacements of population.

                                                                      (4.) R2P Monitor 2014, pp. 10–11, helpfully gathers together all UN Security Council resolutions between January 2006 and February 2014 that make reference to R2P.

                                                                      (5.) For example, see Johnston 2008.

                                                                      (7.) Betts and Orchard 2014, esp. Introduction, and chs. 7 and 8.

                                                                      (10.) Welsh 2013, pp. 366–7; Bellamy 2013.

                                                                      (12.) Pollentine 2013, pp. 242–5.

                                                                      (14.) Pollentine 2013, p. 286.

                                                                      (15.) Pollentine 2013, p. 341.

                                                                      (16.) Pollentine 2013, pp. 243, 286.

                                                                      (18.) Pollentine 2013, p. 318.

                                                                      (19.) See for example Liu 2009.

                                                                      (20.) Bolton quoted in Farer and Julio 2014, p. 210.

                                                                      (24.) UN General Assembly 2009b, p. 23. This remains China’s official position as suggested in its 2014 statement at the UN. See China September 2014.

                                                                      (25.) Welsh 2013, pp. 389–94.

                                                                      (26.) Pollentine 2013, p. 341.

                                                                      (27.) Welsh 2013, p. 393.

                                                                      (28.) Welsh 2013, p. 394.

                                                                      (29.) Mitter 2003, p. 222.

                                                                      (30.) For example, see Johnston 2008.

                                                                      (32.) Senior diplomat quoted in Liu and Zhang 2014, p. 7.

                                                                      (33.) Ruan 2012. Ruan’s position on R2P, which the PRC government has not (yet?) officially adopted, has been helpfully analysed by Garwood-Gowers 2015.

                                                                      (34.) As Mitter 2003, p. 222, has put it: ‘It is understandable why sovereignty looms so large; after all, almost every incursion onto Chinese soil between 1839 and 1945 was based on some interpretation of international law, however dubious: the opium wars, the refusal to return German colonies to Chinese sovereignty at the Paris peace conference, the Japanese occupation of Manchuria.’

                                                                      (38.) Assistant Foreign Minister Le Yucheng concluded that Libya had taught the Chinese government that ‘We respect “Responsibility to Protect” and at the same time we value “Responsibility while Protecting” even more.’ Quoted in Liu and Zhang 2014, p. 17; Ruan 2012.

                                                                      (39.) See, for example, China January 2014.

                                                                      (42.) Quoted in Liu and Zhang 2014, p. 15.

                                                                      (44.) Liu 2014, p. 160. The policy implications of these terms are not spelled out.

                                                                      (46.) Kamphausen 2013, p. 5.

                                                                      (47.) Hirono 2013, p. S210. Liu and Zhang 2014, p. 9, support this finding. Their summary of the Beijing government’s perspective, as articulated by former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, is that a ‘healthy and powerful sovereign state is beneficial to the stability, good governance and balanced development of a country and international society. The international community should pay more attention to economic and social development as well as poverty alleviation in poor and weak states rather than to intervention. Helping states enhance their capacity to protect their populations will help lay the foundation for a more stable society in the future.’

                                                                      (48.) Hirono 2013, p. S203, labels this third legacy of Chinese humanitarianism as ‘the notion of comprehensive development based on a human-oriented [actually meaning a people-oriented] approach’.

                                                                      (49.) Hirono 2013, p. S206.

                                                                      (50.) Hirono 2013, pp. S207–9.

                                                                      (52.) Naughton 2010, p. 438. Importantly, Naughton argues that there is no Chinese model, as such, that is easily applicable to other developing countries.

                                                                      (53.) Naughton 2010, p. 450.

                                                                      (54.) Naughton 2010, p. 442. See also McNally 2012, esp. p. 753.

                                                                      (55.) Naughton 2010, p. 444.

                                                                      (56.) Rafferty 2011, p. 33.

                                                                      (57.) Sarotte 2012, p. 161.

                                                                      (58.) Liu and Zhang 2014, esp. pp. 5–10 and p. 21.

                                                                      (60.) The author would like to thank Nina Hall, Carlotta Minnella, and Philipp Rottman for their perceptive comments on an earlier version of this chapter.