Why the UN welcomes Chinese peacekeepers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 March, 2004, 12:00am

Lieutenant-Colonel Yang Jingjun and his staff are a long way from their frozen homes in northeastern China. At a well-regarded military hospital in Kindu, in the rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the 43 men and women of his Chinese unit provide medical backup for 4,000 United Nations peacekeepers struggling to restore calm in eastern Congo after a war that has taken more than 3 million lives.

Farther east, on the shores of Lake Kivu, Chinese military engineers, among other tasks, keep Goma airport clear of lava from a nearby volcano. Still farther from home, in Liberia, transport units of the People's Liberation Army are part of an effort to stabilise a country just recovering from a decade of misrule and civil war.

UN peacekeeping is mostly off the radar in East Asia. Since the effort to prepare Cambodia for elections more than a decade ago, there has been no major UN peacekeeping operation in the region. There is a residual operation in East Timor, where the UN earlier provided a transitional administration while the nation prepared itself for independence. There is a bigger mission in Afghanistan, which shares a border with China, but the East Asians, for various reasons, keep a low profile.

Beyond the Asian neighbourhood, East Asian countries are even scarcer in the world of UN peacekeeping. Japan is the second-largest financial contributor, after the United States. But neither it, nor China, nor any other East Asian country figures among the top 10 troop contributors. Now China is dipping its toe in the water, and may be inclined to do more. The world should support it.

There are three good reasons the world should be happy that the Chinese are taking this step, and should be encouraging it to go further; two 'normal' reasons and one special one.

The first, and more obvious, is that the Chinese can provide a service that is needed. The Chinese military is well suited to keeping the peace in remote places. It is strong in light infantry. Its units are sustainable in the remote and low-tech, low-support environments in which the blue helmets operate. The Chinese hospital in Kindu provides some of the best medical support anywhere in central Africa, at a fraction of the cost of a comparable western unit, and with much less need for outside support.

The second reason is that, as China grows as a world power, UN peacekeeping increasingly coincides with its national interests. Most UN peacekeeping does one of two things. Either it sits along the fault lines of international conflicts - such as between Israel and Syria, or along the Line of Control between Pakistani- and Indian-occupied Kashmir - giving the parties an excuse not to fight. Increasingly, China has an interest in keeping those conflicts off the front burner. The other thing that UN peacekeeping does is to bring some stability to weak, divided or failing states, usually coming in at the end of civil wars. In Sudan, for example, after a two-decade war in which some 2 million people have died, peace seems to be near, and the UN may be called on to monitor the ambitious six-year peace plan.

Why should China, or any of the nations of East Asia, care? Oil is one reason, as Sudan has substantial recoverable - and so far largely unexploited - reserves. Potentially more important, an unstable Sudan is a possible source of global terrorism, from which no major power will be fully immune. Osama bin Laden found refuge there in the 1990s, when the chaos, violence and despair of the place created the conditions in which international terrorism could thrive.

The third reason that the world should be supporting China as it enters the arena of peacekeeping is that the country is becoming a major international player, and its role will grow. Its economy is already the second-largest in Asia and sixth-largest in the world. Its interests are increasingly international - from trade to terrorism and resources, as the agenda of the current National People's Congress shows. And its military clout will grow, as last week's announcement of a 12 per cent increase in military spending indicates.

How well China's entry on the world stage is managed - by the Chinese themselves, and by those with whom they come into contact - will have important consequences for the world of the 21st century.

The problems of peacekeeping are the problems of great power conflict writ small: intercultural dialogue; managed confrontation; negotiated settlements; and the grey zone between diplomatic compromise and military reality. This is the stuff not only of keeping the peace on the Golan Heights or on the shores of Lake Bukavu; it will also be key to the peaceful entry of China onto the world stage.

David Harland is chief of the United Nations Peacekeeping Best Practices Unit