By Solange Harpham

A controversial and long-debated subject, Responsibility to Protect has once again come to the table with the coalition of states supporting Iraqi forces against ISIS. There have been efforts to find a substitute or a complement to the concept which, misused and abused, recalls only cases of failed and counterproductive interventions. Surprisingly, some of these efforts to “save” R2P seem to come from China, more precisely from the Chinese Institute of Foreign Studies, a think tank closely linked to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and of great influence in the shaping of national foreign policy. Ruan Zongze, former First Secretary at the Embassy of China in Beijing, then counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in the United States and now vice president of the Institute, published a paper in 2012 describing a “new” concept : Responsible Protection. A conference was later organized on the subject, including big names such as Gareth Evans, and titled “Responsible Protection: Building a Safer World”.

Chinese engineers join Peacekeeping Forces in Darfur, UN Photo

Chinese engineers join Peacekeeping Forces in Darfur, UN Photo

At first glance, the scope of Ruan Zongze’s essay itself seems rather small as it refuses to acknowledge any bypassing of the Security Council, refuses to discuss questions of responsibility and legitimacy, and suggests already existing criteria for a “new concept” which in reality is a costumed version of R2P. Considering China’s hard-line foreign policy on non-intervention and the sacredness of state sovereignty, this would not be surprising. But taking a closer look, the main theme of the paper reflects an acceptance of the existence of the R2P and the will to combat the possible abuses of it, rather than a rejection of its founding principles. The last criteria is actually the more innovative, suggesting a mechanism to monitor the progress and the results of intervention operations.

Having China as patron could benefit R2P itself: the concept could today be described as being in a “mid-life crisis” since the events in Syria. Military interventions such as Iraq and Afghanistan, which were justified partly on humanitarian grounds, have showed how counterproductive such interferences can be. The aftermath of the intervention in Libya has done nothing to restore its reputation. Unless united in a coalition such as the one against ISIS, most Western countries do not have the political will or the economic impetus to enter conflicts on the behalf of strangers. In this status quo, a strong and powerful leader such as China would be needed to seize the principle, dust it off, give it a new name to divorce it from any western imperialist claims and bring it to debate once again.

“Norm shaping” such as this could be big step for China on the road to being the major international player it desires to be. But why would China want to bring R2P for debate, why would it want to be perceived as a norm entrepreneur? Why the constant emphasis by Xi Jinping on being a “great responsible power”? One may answer that it is no longer enough for a growing power to be powerful economically or even militarily. In the words of Joseph Nye, it is no longer only about power, but about “power for what” – if China wants allies and influence over those allies, if China wants to be able to influence the international system and promote its own rules, if China wants to be respected rather than feared, then it cannot only rely on economic or military power. It is widely known that Chinese leaders have been concerned about China’s image around the world and that they have been investing heavily in public diplomacy. Whether spending money on the Confucius Institutes or on state branding in Times’ Square in New York, the Chinese leaders have strived to improve their image abroad. When Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, Representative of Brazil tried her hand at presenting a “new” Responsibility to Protect, there was a consensus that Brazil was finally acting like a major power and stepping out of its zone of comfort, and this sparked great enthusiasm, both internationally and domestically.

Redefining and promoting “Responsible Protection” could give a boost to China’s reputation, especially on human rights’ issues and align its foreign policy with its peacekeeping practices. In 2010, China was the largest contributor of military and police forces for peacekeeping of the Security Council. This placed it as 15th contributor in the world. Although China finally declined to join the anti-ISIS coalition, the main reason being its US leadership, it wouldn’t be wise to ignore China’s growing importance and socialization within international organizations. Perhaps one could pause to reflect on the possibility of a world where countries such as Brazil and China take part in the shaping of norms instead of the traditional Western countries. This would not only benefit the countries themselves in terms of image and presence on the international stage but could also reduce the persisting “North/South”divide of the current international system.

Featured Image Credit: UN Photo. License available here.