As the Taliban swept through Afghanistan in August of 2021, chaos ensued within the country. American citizens and soldiers were quickly evacuated, and thousands of Afghan refugees sought refuge in neighboring countries in an effort to escape the escalating takeover. Countries around the world began to consider whether or not they were going to accept these refugees, and if so, how many. 

98 countries agreed to accept Afghan refugees after the US military departure but there was one notable absence on this list: China. Given the close distance between Afghanistan and China, it would be reasonable to assume that it would be a popular destination for many Afghan refugees. But this is not the case. 

In 2020, China failed to rank among the top 15 countries accepting Afghan refugees and asylum seekers. Back in 2016, China was adamant in its decision to prevent Syrian refugees from entering the country during the height of the civil war, with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reporting only nine Syrian refugees in China in August of 2015. China has also taken a strict stance on the entrance of North Korean refugees, enacting harsh punishments for those who try to enter and working with the North Korean government to deport those who enter the country. In short, China does not accept refugees in high numbers from any country, let alone those on its borders like North Korea and Afghanistan. 

Although China’s hardline refugee policy reflects a seeming disregard for humanitarian crises, their efforts globally reveal quite the opposite. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has made enormous strides in investing in developing countries and assisting in refugee-related projects. At the 2017 Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to provide $1 billion to international organizations for refugee-related projects in Asia and Africa.  Along with working with Pakistan to provide aid to Afghanistan, China has also emphasized a desire to extend a helping hand in the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.

Given these contrasting initiatives, a larger question surrounding China’s humanitarian goals emerges: What exactly are these goals? And how are other countries on the global stage responding to them? And perhaps most importantly, is there any hope for cooperation between China and other nations when it comes to assisting in humanitarian crises? 

A Brief Overview of Chinese Humanitarian Policy

China’s reluctance to intervene in Afghanistan and other humanitarian crises reflects a broader strategy the government has employed over the years. Rather than accept refugees or directly engage with other countries, China prefers massive investment projects and bilateral aid agreements to try and eliminate the crisis in question.

Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, describes China’s overall policy when it comes to international aid as “a wide range of aid and financing to a wide range of countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, Central and South Asia, and parts of Central and Eastern Europe”. In other words, it’s an enormous undertaking that encompasses a vast portion of the global system. 

China appears to be investing for the long haul. Unlike in Afghanistan, which would require quick and efficient short-term solutions, China is favorable to large, regional investments and aid projects that ensure future discussion and cooperation. 

This aid takes many forms. Some of the aid is “humanitarian aid as we would normally understand it”, says Kurlantzick. For example, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, China was a large donor of masks and medical supplies to areas in need. China has also played a role in assisting countries in rebuilding after natural disasters. China enacted $22.6 million in aid after a 2011 earthquake in Nepal, and also gave significant aid to countries in Africa during the height of the Ebola crisis. 

China also continues to be a large investor in social infrastructure. China created the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in October of 2000 in which the PRC has engaged in discussion and investment with African nations. “The Belt and Road Initiative is more infrastructure, while FOCAC is actually a lot of social infrastructure”, says Dr. Patrick Kilby, a Senior Lecturer and convener of the Master of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development Program at Australian National University. This includes areas such as women’s empowerment and education, according to Kilby. 

China plays a substantial role in various international organizations doing humanitarian work, and its prominence in global governance is growing every year. China ranks third among nations with the highest voting power in the World Bank. China has also expanded its influence in the UN as well. Beyond their allocation on the UN security council, China has continued to play a large role in the Human Rights Council of the UN and many specialized committees within the UN, catapulting them into the forefront of international affairs. 

Criticism over China’s Humanitarian Initiatives

It seems that when it comes to international humanitarian aid and assistance, China is arguably one of the top contributors to this cause. But many countries, the US among them, seem to take this humanitarian image with a grain of salt. 

Many attribute China’s desire to extend a hand globally as a diversionary tactic to shift criticism away from their potential domestic humanitarian violations. China continues to be under immense scrutiny over its treatment of the Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang, China. And many Western democratic nations look unfavorably towards China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2020. 

The more China continues to promote the idea that they are a global player when it comes to humanitarian assistance, the less likely that receivers of this aid will criticize them over their contentious humanitarian policies at home. 

Observers, such as Kurlantzick, also associate China’s humanitarian projects such as the Belt and Road as a way to “export aspects of China’s governance model”. Essentially, by proving to countries that a Communist nation such as China can provide substantial and well-needed aid and assistance, developing countries will be less inclined to criticize that form of government, or might even begin to promote it at home. 

Dr. Kilby also notes China’s broader political agenda, stating their large investments help “shore up friendly votes”. As China begins to ramp up its presence in international organizations such as the UN and WTO, it will require these friendly votes to help push programs and interests, which will undoubtedly face resistance from Western countries. 

Looking Forward

It is clear that China has a preference for bilateral engagement when it comes to humanitarian aid, as opposed to international cooperation. Despite its substantial roles in the UN and World Bank, the vast majority of its initiatives, such as BRI and FOCAC, are almost exclusively limited to China and the region receiving the investment. Thus, it begs the question: Is there hope for future cooperation in humanitarian crises between China and other nations?

Mr. Kurlantzick says not likely. Although citing the many possible areas of cooperation between China and the US such as climate change and COVID-19, Kurlantzick believes that there are fundamental differences in agendas when it comes to humanitarian assistance that cooperation will be extremely difficult. It appears that China will continue to promote its governance model in developing nations, and the democratic nations will continue to oppose this. 

Dr. Kilby recognizes the fact that Chinese humanitarian aid, over the past 70 years of its existence, “hasn’t changed much at all. There have been no major shifts”. China continues to promote the same strategies from the 1950s as they do today, which signals that change in ideologies and core interests when it comes to aid will likely not change either. 

There is also increasing evidence of competition between China and its competitors in regions of interest, such as South East Asia. In 2017, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad), consisting of the United States, Australia, Japan and India, was revived with hopes of challenging China’s growing role in the Indo-Pacific. 

It appears that for the foreseeable future, China will continue to remain at odds with the rest of the developed world when it comes to humanitarian aid. Beijing shows no signs of slowing down its investments through the BRI and FOCAC, and promotes its political agenda in many of the regions it invests in. 

So while both sides may truly want expanded development in areas of need, the fact of the matter is that politics are, and continue to be, the sole divide between cooperation and competition. The question of cooperation vs competition simply boils down to an issue of self-interest and ulterior motives.