Origins and use:
This concept has become a cornerstone of China’s modern foreign policy. It featured prominently during Xi Jinping’s first overseas trip – to Russia – as China’s president in March 2013. Addressing the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Xi spoke of the need to build a new type of international relations with “win-win cooperation” at its core. The phrase has since appeared in numerous speeches that Xi has made on foreign trips, including his first state visit to the United States in 2015 and in an address to the UN General Assembly the same year.
The phrase has been frequently used in reference to China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative to emphasize the mutual benefits Beijing sees from its plan for developing the economies of neighbouring and allied countries through enhanced global trade. However, countries accepting the initiative have discovered that the BRI often comes with hidden costs, such as an expectation of political support in exchange for investment.
China’s efforts to persuade UN member states to endorse this concept were eventually rewarded in 2018, when the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution China presented on “Promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights” (originally titled “Promoting the international human rights cause through win-win cooperation” before it was amended). Despite a number of questions and reservations about the use of the somewhat ambiguous term by other states during the negotiations, the resolution was passed with a significant majority of the Council’s 47 members in support (28 votes in favour, 17 abstentions and just one vote against).
China hailed the 2018 resolution as “the construction of a new type of international relations”. Later that year, in a submission to the UN Human Rights Council’s Advisory Committee – mandated by the resolution to conduct a study on the role of technical assistance and capacity-building in fostering mutually beneficial cooperation in promoting and protecting human rights – China criticized a system in which countries “named and shamed” states that violated human rights, used human rights issues “to attack others” and interfere in the internal affairs of other states, “thus poisoning the global atmosphere of human rights governance”.
In subsequent years, however, as understanding of intentions behind the use of the term grew (in part due to China’s explanation in their submission to the Advisory Committee), so too did concerns over its inclusion in UN human rights resolutions among other states. Consequently, when the resolution was presented for a second time in 2020, support was significantly reduced, with just 23 states voting in favour, 16 against and eight abstentions. A third iteration passed in March 2021 with 26 votes in favour, 15 against and six abstentions.
Implications for human rights:
China’s resolution on “mutually beneficial cooperation” seeks to recast international human rights law as a matter between states. The term suggests the joining of forces by like-minded governments to protect their own interests. Vaguely defined “cooperation” becomes the goal, rather than the means of achieving human rights protection. It is entirely unclear who the “beneficiaries” are, but the resolutions imply that it is the negotiating states, not people affected by human rights violations or by the “mutual cooperation”.
“Mutually beneficial cooperation” further ignores the responsibility of states to protect the rights of individuals and to cooperate with the international system and its mechanisms for the promotion and protection of human rights. It fails to spell out any consequences for countries that refuse to “cooperate”. It treats human rights as a subject for negotiation and compromise and emphasizes “dialogue” over accountability for human rights abuses.
It is a disturbing sign of Beijing’s growing influence on the UN human rights system that the “mutually beneficial cooperation” resolutions passed in 2020 and again in 2021 despite intensified international scrutiny over China’s treatment of ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang and its crackdown on protests in Hong Kong in 2019. In fact, shortly after the 2020 resolution was passed, 50 human rights experts issued a joint statement expressing “alarm” over the repression of freedoms in China, while pointing out that the Chinese government has “almost always” rejected criticism of its human rights record and punished activists that cooperate with the UN.