Charting a Pathway to Resolving Conflicts through Harmony and Mediation: Chinese Approach to International Conflict Management

Charting a Pathway to Resolving Conflicts through Harmony and Mediation: Chinese Approach to International Conflict Management

[Naimeh Masumy is a research fellow at Maastricht University and a dispute resolution expert specialized in energy and investment disputes]

The author would like to express gratitude for the valuable comments and feedback received from Wolf Von Kumberg, as well as the support given by Hiba al Abiad.

Human beings are members of a whole

In creation of one essence and soul

If one member is afflicted with pain

Other members uneasy will remain

If you have no sympathy for human pain

The name of human you cannot retain

Saadi Shirazi

“The aim of all human relations is to preserve natural harmony.” This mantra, deeply rooted in the values of Confucianism and Taoism, has permeated through the fabric of China’s foreign policy. It has allowed China to emerge in the realm of foreign policy with enticing yet different visions on how to navigate the complex terrain of foreign affairs.

In both Confucianism and Taoism, harmony is highly valued. Confucianism emphasizes living in a network of relationships as the best means to achieve harmony, while Taoism focuses on finding balance with nature to establish good relationships. The Chinese term for harmony is “he“(和平). Originally, “hereferred to the rhythmic interplay of sounds found in nature or between people, which is pleasing to the human ear. This understanding of “he” is supported by the classic text of Confucianism, which describes harmony as “When sounds correspond and mutually bao one another.” However, in this context, “bao” carries various related meanings such as “protect”, “nurture”, “rely on”, “stabilize”, and “assure”. Therefore, “he” does not simply mean the mutual response of sounds, but also the harmonious interplay of these sounds – it is essentially the prototype of music. Another notable expression of “he” is attributed to the Zuozhuan, which is broadly understood as “The male and female phoenixes fly together and their sounds harmonize with vigor”.

In this sense, harmony is productive and stands in stark contrast to sameness. Sameness fails to foster growth. Harmony derived from diversity creates a vibrant world, while sameness without sufficient difference can only lead to a dead end. As Shi Bo, a prominent Confucian, explains, “he” at its core reconciles a multitude of things and can only be harnessed in a society that embraces the diversity of its elements. It is only then that “hecan bring things together and help society flourish. Within this spirit, the critical principle of “maintaining harmony benefits the perfection of heaven” has played a central role in shaping China’s approach to the transnational order. 

In a world that is increasingly plagued by discord, China’s mantra of “unity of paradoxes” has helped Beijing position itself successfully as a reliable intermediary and, more importantly, a sensible peacemaker in conflicts and crises in regions such as Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The pursuit of harmony and mutual cooperation has found resonance among countries with Islamic interpretations as their guiding principles. For them, the concept of harmony is not foreign, but rather a cherished value deeply embedded within Islamic thought and tradition. From Islamic perspectives, harmony serves as essential building blocks in establishing harmonious relationships among all people—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—in the contemporary period.

However, China’s influence in the transnational legal order is frequently disregarded by the powerful Western States due to its historical inclination to play a supportive role.  Yet, this underappreciation disregards the unique harmony-focused stance that seamlessly integrates Confucian and Islamic traditions. By valuing harmony as the end product of peacemaking and reconciliation, China is now taking independent initiatives and showcasing its capability in sensible peace-building efforts. China’s mediation diplomacy has emerged as a central pillar of its foreign policy objectives, driving a shift in the interpretation and application of conciliatory and non-interventionist principles in resolving conflicts and crises in the region. This strategy, carefully devised to manage conflicts, has resonated with other countries that share a non-interventionist agenda. This piece argues that the essence of China’s approach to mediating conflicts should be distilled and shared as valuable elements of peacemaking in a world that desperately needs it.  

Harmony v. Liberalism Norms: The Emerging Principle to Manage Conflicts

In fact, China’s foreign diplomacy focuses on the theme of a harmonious world, which represents a nuanced approach to navigating complex international situations, including conflicts. This approach signifies a shift in China’s role within the broader context of transnational order, deviating from the prevailing concept of global governance, international liberalism, which has dominated for almost seventy years. This change can be described in two discernible ways:

Firstly, international liberalism is primarily focused on centralized rule-making authority, hierarchical institutions, and universal membership. Its main objective is to establish global institutions that have a universal scope, often referred to as “bridges” between nations. These institutions play a vital role in global governance by promoting international cooperation, resolving conflicts, and fostering interdependence through the creation of effective norms. While encouraging states to cooperate is a key goal of international organizations, which aim to improve society by establishing democratic parliamentary systems and extending the right to vote, this emphasis on international organizations supports a top-down approach to creating the international order. International institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the International Court of Justice have played a significant role in liberal efforts to address conflicts through interdisciplinary approaches and collaboration among international actors, competencies, and resources. Within this vein, international liberalism upholds the important value of safeguarding substantive principles of justice. 

However, critics argue that it falls short in embracing the procedural theories of justice that are inherent in democratic deliberation and republicanism. Some critics even question whether liberalism can truly prioritize justice as the “first virtue of social institutions,” arguing that justice is only necessary when the higher virtue of community has broken down. Moreover, liberalism may underestimate and undermine the significance of community as an essential element of the good life for human beings. By assuming a specific conception of the self, liberalism fails to acknowledge that the self is “embedded” in and partly shaped by community commitments and values that are subject to choose. Critics contend that liberalism fails to remain attentive to the obligations and commitments necessary for the greater good of the community. Consequently, the emphasis on individual virtue in liberalism overlooks the vital role of cooperation in fostering a harmonious community.

In contrast, China’s mediation culture places a high priority on harmony and cooperation when dealing with conflict crises. China takes a flexible approach to resolving conflicts, transitioning from hierarchical structures to networks and from centralized compulsion to voluntary association. A notable example in this regard is China managing disputes in the Middle East by strengthening bilateral and multilateral cooperation with other great powers and regional organizations (e.g., addressing the Iranian nuclear crisis and the Syrian civil war).
The second difference lies in the spirit of liberalism and its adherence to a predefined construct marked by economic progress and defined by values such as justice, fairness, and moral considerations. Early liberals believed that economic openness, justice, and fairness mutually reinforced each other. They aimed to improve society by promoting norms such as establishing democratic parliamentary institutions, extending the right to vote, and guaranteeing civil rights. This was seen as a prototype to bring about peace in societies that were plagued by conflicts.

In peace-building discussions, however, China does not confine itself to rigid definitions or titles. Instead, parties assume a position that allows for progress through bilateral or multilateral channels of mediation. The ideology of a harmonious world, a hallmark of China’s engagement in the international legal order, envisions a world where countries peacefully coexist and cooperate for mutual benefit. This concept was introduced by Chinese President Hu Jintao at the 2005 World Summit. To achieve harmony in a world filled with paradoxes, Chinese mediation emphasizes moderation and avoids rigid adherence to norms or laws. Within this spirit, when interacting with different heads of state, respect for authority plays a central role. A discernible example is how China played a crucial role in facilitating a diplomatic breakthrough between Iran and Saudi Arabia. China’s strategy involved engaging in meetings with the leaders of both countries to find common ground. This approach led to successful discussions in Iraq and Oman, where key issues were addressed.

The Core Characteristics of China’s Mediation Approach

The essence of China’s mediation can be seen as the essence of peacemaking as it bears three fundamental characteristics that have assisted China in playing a more constructive role in conflict and crisis in the Middle East region.

First, China’s mediation role differs from traditional Western-style mediation, which emphasizes an individualistic utilitarian value system that prioritizes fairness, justice, and equity. In contrast, China takes a flexible approach to mediation, tailoring it to specific circumstances and leveraging existing bilateral relations. Critically, China’s mediation diplomacy is part of a carefully devised strategy that prioritizes conflict management over conflict resolution. This approach reflects the wisdom of self-knowledge, an important trait for mediators. When dealing with conflict, China attributes importance to prioritizing moderation and respect for each country’s autonomy. China’s conflict mediation strategy follows a facilitative approach based on the principle of non-interference. In bilateral situations, China uses “incentivizing mediation” to encourage parties to engage in negotiations, giving them the leverage to create their own roadmap to a peaceful resolution. 

A clear example of this is China’s intervention in the issue of nuclear weapons in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). China’s approach has mainly focused on maintaining peace and stability, managing conflicts, and seeking regional security. In doing so, China employed various principles and skills to mediate the potential conflict.  These include adhering to the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, being prepared to take action when necessary, creating an optimal environment for communication, serving as an honest broker while maintaining a firm position, advocating a step-by-step approach to negotiations, and aiming for a mutually beneficial agreement as the outcome. 

As a result, China’s mediation efforts in the DPRK nuclear issue yielded success in February 2007. The country agreed to close its nuclear facilities in exchange for fuel aid and steps towards improving relations with the United States and Japan. In this instance, China emphasized peace and stability, which align with the core principles of Chinese mediation diplomacy. This diplomacy embraces a unique Confucianism humanistic values system that includes social harmony and moderation. It is noteworthy is that China’s approach focuses on addressing the DPRK’s plutonium program before tackling the more complex uranium program. 

The Chinese mediation approach, which focuses on managing conflicts rather than resolving them, prioritizes flexibility overreaching a final outcome. In line with this approach, China carefully considers whether to engage in bilateral or multilateral mediation. When attempting to deescalate conflicts, China acts as a balancing force, assuming various roles. These roles can include serving as the main mediator in multilateral negotiations, participating in multilateral processes, or acting as a mediator on the sidelines through bilateral channels. China’s mediation approach is characterized by its respect for the autonomy of the parties involved in the dispute.  A prime example in this regard is China’s efforts to urge Iran to comply with the requirements of the UN Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency Board. However, China does not object to Iran’s sovereign right to utilize nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. China seeks a balanced solution that respects Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy use while also addressing international non-proliferation concerns.

China also emphasizes the promotion of direct dialogue between the key parties. This strategy aims to help China not only solve the immediate issue of nuclear proliferation but also address the long-term threat to regional peace and security. This achievement that was based on China’s flexible method has brought China to the forefront of international mediation, highlighting its potential and expertise in this field. 

Another core characteristic of China’s mediation is its all-encompassing nature. China takes a holistic approach to conflict prevention and resolution, recognizing that many international conflicts arise from economic underdevelopment. The core tenet of China’s mediation approach involves considering economic development, regional security mechanisms, and confidence-building measures. Following this vein, China actively promotes direct dialogue among the key parties and encourages a give-and-take agreement based on equality, reciprocity, and compromise. The ultimate goal in such situations is to stabilize the situation and explore feasible solutions. Therefore, China’s mediation strategy does not adhere to a fixed protocol or procedure. Looking into Suadi Arabia and Iran deal, we can see that China adopts a context-oriented approach to dealing with international conflicts. This approach aims to facilitate face-saving for all parties involved and may be led by individuals who hold authority or have good relationships with the disputing parties. The deal appeared to show Iran’s willingness to ease tensions with Saudi Arabia across the Middle East, given their opposing stances in various conflicts, especially in Yemen and Syria. While Iran reportedly committed to halting the arming of the Houthis, this specific pledge was not mentioned in the concise joint statement issued by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China.

This approach has proven successful in resolving negotiation standoffs and achieving widespread agreement. It has been particularly effective in the Darfur conflict, where China provided over $10 million in assistance to Sudan between 2004 and 2007. The objective was to lift Sudan out of poverty and help it reach a world GDP ranking of No. 65 in 2007.

Additionally, the holistic nature of China’s mediation efforts is evident in its long-term, friendly, and cooperative relationships with the disputing parties. China employs a casual, non-threatening, and non-forceful mediation style, which is widely accepted by all the parties involved. The role of China’s mediation efforts is particularly pronounced in the diplomatic breakthrough between Iran and Saudi Arabia, where China played the role of mediator and the deal was signed in Beijing.

To achieve this significant breakthrough, China conducted several meetings in Iraq and Oman to address the fundamental issues between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Throughout the mediation process, China did not shy away from discussing critical issues, such as the three disputed islands in the Gulf, which have been a source of contention among the parties. However, raising these important issues did not discourage Iran from proceeding with the normalization of ties. In its prior visits, China assured Iran that it would safeguard its sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and national dignity during Iran’s presidential election. Iran has consistently opposed external interference in its internal affairs and threats to its security and stability.
In addition to normalizing diplomatic relations, the two sides agreed to implement two bilateral agreements: the General Agreement for Cooperation in the Fields of Economy, Trade, Investment, Technology, Science, Culture, Sports, and Youth, and the Security Cooperation Agreement, signed in 1998 and 2001, respectively. This successful outcome highlights the effectiveness of China’s proactive diplomacy and extensive economic engagement as a means to gain confidence in its mediation capabilities and redirecting the behaviour of conflicting states when they veer off the desired path.


“Peace is not merely the absence of conflict but also the presence of harmony and love.” Thus, in a world plagued with discord, the pursuit of peace and harmony yields long-lasting results. As countries become increasingly interconnected, the risks to the global economy from conflict and social unrest also rise. Therefore, China’s active efforts to mediate in regional and international affairs, forging a unique path towards stronger and more stable security agreements, while simultaneously fostering peace and harmony, should not be overlooked. Hence, the development of China’s mediation culture should serve as a valuable source of lessons for effective conflict resolution. Instead of solely focusing on China’s authoritarian nature, countries engaged in Western mediation practices should consider embracing a different approach. A fresh perspective is needed to integrate peaceful resolutions and advance the well-being of all humanity.

The importance of peace and harmony is being acknowledged by more forward-thinking individuals for several reasons. Firstly, peace and harmony are essential prerequisites for a tranquil and stable society. Without them, society would descend into chaos, where the powerful prey on the weak. Secondly, peace and harmony offer numerous advantages. They empower individuals to fully unlock their creative potential, facilitate sustainable development of economies and cultures, and ensure enduring prosperity and security for all of humanity.

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