Refugee Policy and Foreign Policy: Examining Policy Linkage in Chinese Relations with North Korea, Myanmar, and Vietnam

By Jasmine Lam
2013, Vol. 5 No. 10 | pg. 1/6 |


This paper analyzes state refugee policies through the lenses of foreign policy behavior and policy linkage. The case studies compare variations in Chinese state policies towards refugees from North Korea, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Through an additional examination of China’s relations with these states, it is found that fluctuations in levels of cooperation, which characterize bilateral relations, help explain differences in state refugee policies. Specifically, the higher level of cooperation between state A and B, the less likely the receiving state A will admit the refugees of state B, and vice versa.

In the field of international development studies, practical and academic work relating to forced migration has expanded since the contemporary international refugee regime was established after World War II. Literature on refugee studies is vast, but there exists a distinct lack of research linking forced migration to international relations. Past analysis predominantly focused on movement from developing to developed nations, where in contrast an overview of the international refugee regime shows there is increasing flow of movement between developing countries. Secondly, refugee policies are highly political in nature and linked to state foreign policy behaviour, although this connection has been likewise neglected. The current literature fails to make sense of why states pursue certain refugee policies over others, and why there are variations in policies enacted toward different groups of refugees in one country. By analyzing the refugee policies of China and its neighbouring countries, this paper found that refugee policies follow levels of cooperation between states.

The case studies of this paper compare China’s policies towards incoming refugees across three states: Vietnam, Myanmar, and North Korea. These three states share substantial borders with China and contributed inflows of over 20,000 refugees and above. Findings from literature and news sources demonstrate differences in Chinese policies in treatment towards the three refugee groups. For the wave of Vietnamese refugees entering China in 1978, China responded by fully integrating the 250,000 refugees into state farms, fishing and mining industries, and small businesses. Toward Burmese refugees, China followed a policy of temporary relief in the nature of makeshift tents, food, and hospitality, while still refusing to recognize them as refugees. For North Korean refugees, China pursued a strict policy of refusal and repatriation.

After an examination into the bilateral relations of China and the origin states of refugees, as well as China’s policy towards each of these groups, this paper argues that the variable that best explains the discrepancy in policy is the level of cooperation defining their bilateral relations. More specifically, the higher level of cooperation between states A and B, the less likely the receiving state A will admit the refugees of state B. Likewise, the lower the level of cooperation between state A and B, the more likely the receiving state A will admit the refugees of state B. Each case study then falls along a spectrum of refugee policies, ranging from “refusal and repatriation” on the end of high level of cooperation, to “temporary assistance” in the middle, and “acceptance and resettlement” at the other end characterized by a low level of cooperation. From this perspective, state refugee policies are intrinsically tied to foreign policy behaviour. With these analyses, the empirical purpose of this paper is to expand on the discussion on South-South migration studies, and the theoretical purpose is to integrate perspectives of international relations into international development studies.

This analysis is structured as follows: first, a consideration of the common definition of refugees is provided along with an overview of the international refugee regime. In the next section, a review of existing literature on refugee policy and international relations is presented, with emphasis given to the importance of linking the two fields. In the third section, the treatment of each refugee group (North Korea, Myanmar, and Vietnam) in China is examined. Next, a discussion is undertaken as to why other variables are less fitting in explaining variations in Chinese refugee policies. Lastly, the conclusion attempts to extend the findings of this paper to refugee policies in other states.

North Korean refugees fleeing Hungnam on December 19, 1950

North Korean Refugees

Source: U.S. Department of Defense

II. Literature Review

The study of foreign policy as a sub-field within the larger discipline of international relations began in the 1950s. Foreign policy is defined as “the strategy or approach chosen by the national government to achieve its goals in its relations with external entities,” and foreign policy behaviour is “the observable artefacts of foreign policy… [and] may include the categorization of such behaviour, such as along conflict-cooperation continua.”1 This includes foreign policy decision-making, bureaucratic and organizational politics, psychological aspects in formulation of foreign policy, and comparative foreign policy.2 The analysis of foreign policy borrows perspectives from the classic international relations schools of thoughts, realism, liberalism, and constructivism.3 Contemporary research in this field is increasingly looking at the interplay between different levels – individual, nation-state, and international – in formulating foreign policy.4 In addition, there have been more efforts to utilize findings from various social science disciplines.5

Secondly, under the broader scholarship of forced migration studies, researchers have begun to comment on the use of refugee policies as a tool of foreign policy in the 1980s. In “International Factors in the Formation of Refugee Movements,” receiving states can attract refugees and create a “pull” factor with a policy that encourages admission, or with a restrictive policy that is poorly enforced.6 This becomes a tool of foreign policy since an open-door policy “usually implies condemnation of relevant government for persecuting its citizens, or at least failing to afford them protection.”7 Teitelbaum argues along the same line with a more normative tone.8 He finds that mass expulsions from sending side can be used as tool to “destabilize or embarrass foreign policy adversaries,” while for receiving countries, refugee admission can serve to “embarrass and discredit adversary nations.”9 In Refugee and International Relations, Loescher sums up these observations in that “government responses to refugee movements from neighbouring or distant countries are greatly influenced by the relations between sending and receiving nations.”10 These authors together highlight the connection between refugee policies and foreign policy.

In the 21st century, however, literature explicitly linking the greater disciplines of international relations and forced migration studies is still lacking. This is pointed out most openly in Refugees in International Relations, a compilation of essays resulting from a lecture series by both international relations and forced migration studies scholars at the University of Oxford.11 These essays point to the reasons why the two fields can benefit from learning from one another, as they overlap in the areas of “international cooperation, globalization, human rights, international organizations, regime complexity, non-state actors, regionalism, North-South relations, and security.”12 Representing the school of realism, Jack Snyder’s article suggests the reason why realist scholars have often overlooked this field is because of realist tendency to reject all elements relating to humanitarianism, as it is considered a non-security goal.13 Similarly, Myron Weiner expressed scepticism in partnerships between states and humanitarian institutions, as governments place national interest as paramount in foreign policy decision-making, while humanitarian institutions form policies based on ethical and moral values.14 Nonetheless, Snyder points out that humanitarian actions can be viewed through a consequentialist approach, where “good intentions” are only pursued if they “achieve good results.”15 This suggests that humanitarian objectives can be used as instruments to pursue state interests, and thus should not be readily dismissed in the analysis of international relations.

Lastly, there has been development in expanding literature linking the two fields, most prominently where it relates to refugees and conflicts in the developing world. In Refugee Manipulation, Steve Stedman and Fred Tanner demonstrate how refugees and the refugee regime can be used as resources of war, and its implications for international security.16 Furthermore, it is found that since the early 1990s, refugees have more and more often been catalysts in spreading conflict beyond borders.17

Interdisciplinary studies incorporating forced migration and international relations are growing, but explicit literature on linkages between refugee policies and foreign policy is missing. This review also reveals the benefits of expanding research in this area, as refugee policies are innately tied to politics. Furthermore, the study of foreign policy involves conflict-cooperation in state behaviour, entailing an examination of this in bilateral relations. The next section analyszes the case studies of China and its three neighbouring countries, placing each finding along a spectrum of high-to-low levels of cooperation. Through this, the paper challenges existing literature and reveals new connections between foreign and refugee policy.

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