Exploring UK-China Cooperation in Non-Traditional Security

Exploring UK-China Cooperation in Non-Traditional Security

In early June, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Dr. Mirwa Hirono, Associate Professor at the College of Global Liberal Arts at Ritsumeikan University, to discuss her work on UK-China Cooperation in Non-Traditional Security. This project was funded through the ESRC and was accredited as part of the Global Uncertainties Project. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision. 

Kate McNeil: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about how you ended up researching UK-China Cooperation in Non-Traditional Security?

Dr Miwa Hirono: Since the beginning of my post-doctoral years, I have studied China’s peacekeeping operations and work in humanitarian assistance. My work takes a bottom-up approach – I visit places where disasters or conflicts have taken place, and interview people on the ground about their perspectives. 

China is often criticized because it takes a sovereignty-centered approach in its relationships with other countries. At the time I began working on this project ten years ago, China’s focus in Africa was on business alone. They were not really engaging in political affairs and had been criticized – particularly by Western countries – for not taking local conflicts in the region seriously. However, China was also beginning to be interested in promoting its image as a good international citizen. I was living in the UK at this point, and I felt that the UK needed to better understand the Chinese political and military establishments. At this point, the UK was also beginning to enter austerity, and I also was interested in what a clever international contribution for the UK might look like in that context. 

Reflecting on all of this, I decided to explore whether it would be possible to strike up a practical level of cooperation between the UK and China. To do this, we would need to focus on common problems and threats facing both the UK and China. Here, I recognized that if the two countries began talking about principles, you’d hit a wall, as had happened in the past when America sold weapons to Taiwan and China subsequently severed US-China cooperation on military affairs.  So, non-traditional security seemed like a better place to start the relationship. Areas such as peacekeeping operations, humanitarian assistance, and anti-piracy operations are areas of common interest which put foreign policy principles aside, so this area seemed to have potential.

How did you go about carrying out your work?

I drew on my experiences of fieldwork in Asia and Africa and used that to gain insight into what types of expertise the UK and China could offer one another that would be useful. From there, I realized I would also need to draw on practitioner expertise, so the project really focused on cooperation with practitioners and the co-production of knowledge. 

What were the main things that emerged from that process of knowledge creation? 

Several concrete policy recommendations emerged from my work, including ideas which emerged from a conference I hosted in cooperation with RUSI which brought together academics and policymakers from the UK and China for a series of discussions on peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and anti-piracy operations. The recommendations which emerged focused on the notion that we need to start to cooperate by focusing on what we can do immediately. For example, the establishment of a peacekeeping research center at the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University and participating a regular dialogue on peacekeeping and post-disaster systems. Cooperation needs to happen through institutionalized communications channels and the creation of regular platforms for discussion. 

While it is hard to say how much impact my work generated, given private nature of diplomatic channels, I know that the UK embassy in Beijing was quite interested in my work. My reports were shared as part of the academic contribution to UK-China dialogue, and I was invited by the UK embassy to promote dialogue between the UK and China on peacekeeping operations. However, I think it is also worth noting that China’s changed so much over the last ten years.

Can you tell me a bit more about this change?

In 2012, China wanted to learn more about participation in post-disaster assistance and humanitarian assistance, but at the time, that interest was primarily driven by the government, which wanted to understand what was happening internationally. Now, with the Belt and Road Initiative, companies and NGOs are encouraged to engage in business and investment activities abroad. So, now China’s NGOs are eager to learn how they can deliver humanitarian assistance in an international context, and people like Alibaba’s Jack Ma have become involved in philanthropy and humanitarian assistance. 

Has your work on UK-China cooperation and non-traditional security cooperation influenced your thinking in what you have done since? 

I’d initially planned on continuing my work on UK-China cooperation, however, I ended up having to leave the UK part way through the project as a result of an immigration decision made by the Home Office, which was a really sad time for me, and one that brought an end to this particular project. 

However, after I left the UK, I continued my research on peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. 

The things I learned during my exploration of UK-China cooperation informed my subsequent work on China’s cooperation in peacekeeping with other major countries including Japan, UK and US. For example, I recently published a paper on how Sino-Japanese competition has influenced these countries’ activities in Africa. Major powers face similar challenges in Africa,  which I also wrote about for policy communities in the US. My work on UK-China cooperation also gave me a solid foundation from which to focus on the linkage between humanitarianism and the state – something I recently wrote a report about for the Overseas Development Institute in London. That report focused on understanding China’s Humanitarian Assistance, in which I explored how the country’s approach to humanitarianism is linked to its diplomatic interests, international reputation, and indirect economic and commercial interests. I have also written more broadly about the impact of China’s decision-making processes on international cooperation

My work on UK-China cooperation also has stayed with me because that work made me more conscious of the linkages between my scholarly work and practical implications. It has made me more comfortable with engaging in the process of knowledge co-production with practitioners and made me more conscious of how I can support the policy process. 

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