What does China think about R2P?

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Li Baodong
Li Baodong, Permanent Representative of the People's Republic of China to the UN

Review: "China and Responsibility to Protect: Maintenance and Change of Its Policy for Intervention" by Liu Tiewa

The Pacific Review, Vol. 25 No. 1 March 2012: 153–173

Over the past two years, emerging powers' behavior in the UN Security Council has received an unprecedented amount of attention. This has two reasons. First, all the BRICS and Germany have been part of the Council, providing an interesting perspective about how the UN Security Council would look like and operate after a possible and long-awaited reform. In addition, a string of high-profile humanitarian crises - Côte d'Ivoir, Libya and Syria - have exposed all members' views on complex issues of sovereignty vs the protection of human rights.

Liu Tiewa, a Professor at Beijing University, who participates in a research project on global norms evolution and the Responsibility to Protect (together with GPPi, Oxford, FGV, CEU in Budapest, the Goethe University in Frankfurt and JNU in Delhi), has written an interesting article on China's views on R2P, which helps the reader gain a better understanding of Beijing's startegy vis-à-vis recent humanitarian crises, sovereignty and the role of international institutions.

The author makes clear that China is - like virtually all other governments - committed to R2P, thus rejecting the widespread notion that R2P merely serves as a figleaf for the West's droit d'ingérence in new clothes.

Interestingly enough, a search on twitter reveals that a significant part of those tweeting about R2P dismiss it as a hegemonic plot.

For example, @HolaHammie reasons that "R2P is only used in states where superpowers can exploit resources, its not about helping."

Arguing along similar lines, @KAIFadhel writes that "everyone agrees (...) that the Responsibly to Protect doctrine (R2P) is a cover for 'pro-democracy' regime change."

Finally, @lawyer_chella charges that the United States "drop bombs on little kids, even stoop so low as to pay lip service to R2P out of their evil mouths (...) They'll stop at nothing. They are evil."

Another group of people is convinced that China and the other BRICS dislike R2P. The author quotes an American commentator who contends that emerging powers' "sympathy towards the Khaddafi regime is as obvious as their hatred towards R2P."

To many critics of these critics, the fact that emerging powers such as China support R2P in many instances would come as a surprise - far from dismissing the idea, China has concrete notions of how and when R2P should be applied in situations of crisis.

Liu Tiewa's article provides important details about China's position, but mostly remains on a descriptive level and often repeats China's official line- she readily concedes that she refrains from "evaluating Chinese policy" but merely notices that it was "consistent" with its principles during the Libya crisis.

Discussing China's thinking on the application of R2P, the author points out that "with regard to the three pillars embodied in the concept of RtoP, Chinese government has tended to be more supportive to pillar one: the protection responsibility of the state." This is good news - China has a lot to contribute to promoting development and peace abroad, through its leadership in peacekeeping (as the largest troop contributor of the P5), development aid and its economic clout which has helped many countries stay afloat in recent years. While many analysts around the world are anxious about China's rise, it is fair to say that China has made the world a better place over the past decades - largley by lifting millions of people at home and abroad out of poverty.

Fervent supporters of R2P will be concerned about Liu Tewa's assertion that from the Chinese government's point of view, "action can only be taken with the consent of the state involved" - yet in another part of the text, she quotes a Chinese policy maker who concedes that "absolute non-interference" is not possible. Liu Tewa sums up these seemingly contradicting positions by arguing that "China has gradually changed its general attitude towards humanitarian intervention from absolute non-intervention by the international society to conditional international intervention."

Many questions remain unanswered. Chinese officials profess to focus on prevention, yet what should be done if prevention fails? What kind of prevention could have avoided the conflict in Libya, a country that only a few weeks before gave no signs of being at a potential victim of large-scale killings. How can China become a thought leader in prevention? The Chinese government insists that force should almost never be used against the will of the host government - yet it does not formulate when exactly this rule can be broken to save civilians.

Still, the article is instructive and makes clear that the common perception that China is only now beginning to develop more sophisticated ideas about global norms and sovereignty is mistaken. China has, Lu Tiewa points out, a "semi-feudal and semi colonial" history, which strongly informs its position on sovereignty and intervention. China is thus not "beginning to make up its mind" about the big questions of the day - rather, its recent rise both allows and forces it to engage but more than before. As a consequence, China's ideas matter more than ever for the future of global norms.

Read also:

Is R2P a Western idea?

Who will make the rules in tomorrow’s world?

Emerging Powers and the Responsibility to Protect

Photo credit: AP