World Review | China’s alternative role in UN peacekeeping

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China’s alternative role in UN peacekeeping

China’s alternative role in UN peacekeeping
Chinese peacekeeping troops push a trapped truck on a mission in Liberia (source: dpa)

Over the last decade, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has increased the number of forces it contributes to the United Nations peacekeeping operations. The decision reflects a notable shift in Chinese peacekeeping policy and hints at the roles the People’s Liberation Army may undertake in future United Nations missions, writes World Review Have Your Say contributor John Pollock.

Following the French intervention in Mali in January 2013, the Security Council authorized the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) under Resolution 2100. Though initially a “re-hatting” of a West African-led peacekeeping force, MINUSMA has now become a full-fledged UN stabilization force of 12,000 troops, operating across northern Mali.

In May 2013, Beijing announced that 400 ground troops would provide security for MINUSMA’s headquarters and residential areas in Bamako. This marked the first time Beijing had deployed combat infantry since 800 members of the PLA served in the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in 1993, aiding in the demobilization of Khmer Rouge insurgents.

How big is Chinese UN contribution?
Out of the five permanent members of the Security Council, China is now the largest provider of peacekeepers to UN operations around the world, with 2,180 peacekeepers in 2014. China is also the sixth largest contributor in terms of funding, with around 6.64 percent of the overall budget.

The increasing role China undertakes stands in stark contrast to its reluctance to even accept the principle of peacekeeping when it was admitted to the UN in the 1970s. That did not happen until 1981, when it supported renewing the mandate for the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). While mostly abstaining, its voting style was characterized as “cooperation by acquiescence.” China finally joined the United Nations Standby Arrangements System in 1988.

With the end of the Cold War, China became engaged in limited participation in UN authorized operations. In 1991, Beijing abstained during the vote authorizing the Persian Gulf War and subsequent eviction of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait by a US-led coalition but voted in favor of UN peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia (UNPROFOR). It avoided sending forces on any mission to Cambodia during the 1990s, where Beijing had clear immediate interests in maintaining influence in post-Khmer Phnom Penh.

China UN civilian aid programs
The shift in Chinese contribution to UN peacekeeping forces came in the early 2000s. With much of the world’s focus on post-9/11 security issues, China began deploying police, engineers and medical staff in post-conflict states. Over the next decade, China provided police to United Nations missions in Bosnia (2001), Afghanistan (2002), Kosovo and Haiti (2004), reinforced the UN mission in East Timor following violence in 2006 and sent 182 engineers to post-war Lebanon. These engineers received commendations for their role in anti-mine operations across southern Lebanon. In total, over 22,000 members of the PLA, including police, have served in UN operations since 1990.

The doctrine operated throughout this period differed drastically from the Western model of peacekeeping. While the Western military peacekeepers operated largely separate from their civilian aid programs, the Chinese military and police essentially served as extensions to Beijing’s aid and infrastructure spending in developing states.

China sent 218 PLA engineers to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2007 to aid in road construction. As recently as 2012 in Liberia, the structure of the PLA contribution consisted of 275 engineers, 240 infantry for security, 18 police and 43 medical staff. Whereas other nations’ peacekeepers were engaged in force protection and ceasefire monitoring measures, the Chinese provided healthcare via a field hospital in Zwedru, Liberia’s third largest city.

China’s economic influence in Africa is increasingly being felt; the new $200 million African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is a reflection of the wider levels of investment by Beijing.

The deployment of infantry forces to Mali and more recently to UN operations in South Sudan (UNMISS) is a sign that we are seeing a more confident, more experienced and more engaged China in terms of peacekeeping. The modern PLA is a very different force from its Cold War counterpart. It is increasingly better armed, more mobile at the brigade and battalion level and supported by substantial logistics and therefore capable of sustained operations.

China is offering a noticeable alternative to the more security-oriented peacekeeping conducted by NATO in the Balkans and Afghanistan through involving peacekeepers directly in aid and infrastructure work.

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