China broadens UN peacekeeping operations
China is expanding its role in UN peacekeeping operations overseas at a time when the US is rethinking its global duties.
Greater participation in peacekeeping gives more clout at the UN, where western countries often control prominent departmental posts. Some Chinese strategists even believe it will help give China a voice in any eventual settlement to the conflict in Syria, where Beijing has so far stayed on the sidelines.
Among the five permanent Security Council members, China is now the largest contributor to peacekeeping forces, deploying about 2,600 of the total 88,000 “blue berets”.
Beijing pledged last year to raise that number to 8,000. It is in contention to head the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, which has been dominated by France for many years, according to Foreign Policy magazine.
Beijing sees the sponsoring of peacekeeping missions as “both a responsibility and a chance to lift its international image”, said Shen Dingli, head of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. It “boosts China’s global status and is potentially helpful in antiterrorism missions outside China, so it is helpful to protect Chinese investment and people abroad”.
Taking the lead could position China for a greater voice in Africa — which hosts nine of the UN’s 16 peacekeeping missions — and, at some point, the Middle East. Beijing has watched in dismay as violence engulfs a region on which it relies for oil supplies.
“If eventually peacekeeping needs to be dispatched, we might see [UN] soldiers in Syria or Yemen,” said Victor Gao, a commentator on China’s foreign policy. “The US believes Pax Americana is responsible for world stability but we believe the international security order is assured by the UN.”
China has ploughed money into upgrading its defence technology, investing in fighter jets and ships, while making efforts to recruit tech-savvy graduates as it trims its ranks of uneducated soldiers. But its military remains relatively untested, with no international combat since a border war with Vietnam in 1979.
Beijing first sent peacekeeping units to a conflict zone in 2013, dispatching troops to Mali. Last year it beefed up its global contribution by sending peacekeepers to guard Chinese-invested oil installations in South Sudan under the UN peacekeeping command. As part of its non-interference policy, China has not participated in US-led actions in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere.
In July, two Chinese peacekeepers were killed during fighting between government and rebel forces near South Sudan’s oilfields. China’s defence ministry has denied reports that Chinese troops were disorganised or failed to protect aid workers that were attacked and raped.
A UN report found they had left their posts, and that there was a disorganised chain of command.
China has an opportunity to lead internationally in peacekeeping in part because the US is “lukewarm” in its interest in contributing peacekeeping troops despite footing the largest share of the peacekeeping budget, according to Zhou Bo, honorary fellow at the Center of China-American Defence Relations at the PLA’s Academy of Military Science.