Beijing takes bigger role in conflict zones

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 December, 2008, 12:00am

The mainland regained China's seat at the United Nations in 1971, but it did not send troops to participate in peacekeeping missions until 1989.

Since then, China has come a long way, from simply sending military observers to deploying a self-contained unit of 350 troops to Sudan in 2005, according to foreign policy and military analysts.

'China's evolution from a 'no involvement' to a 'full participation' mentality towards peacekeeping was a result of the opening up and reform,' said Wu Miaofa , a former attache with the Chinese delegation to the United Nations and now a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies.

Prior to the late 1980s, China held the conservative view that peacekeeping missions functioned as little more than 'putting out fires' and did not help provide lasting resolutions to disputes, Mr Wu said. The belief was also that peacekeeping would create a sense of dependency in the countries affected, and China believed that only revolution could bring change.

However, economic reforms and growing involvement in international affairs brought a dramatic change in 1988, when China decided to join the UN's Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations.

One of the biggest causes of the change was China's realisation that most of these missions were carried out by the developing world.

Research also showed that missions often brought calm to a situation for political negotiations.

'Before China participated in peacekeeping missions, developed countries were looking at China coldly, while the developing countries were perplexed,' Mr Wu said. 'It was incongruent with China's position in the UN.'

China finally sent its first batch of military observers to the Middle East in 1989, troops the following year, and the first military units were sent to Cambodia in 1992.

Chinese troops wearing the blue beret of UN peacekeepers have been sent to hotspots in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas.

China was the biggest provider of peacekeeping troops among the five UN Security Council permanent member states until France took over in September.

At the end of last month, China ranked thirteenth among UN member states in terms of total peacekeeping personnel, with a 2,159-strong force comprising 209 police, 1,892 troops, and the rest military observers. Only two developed countries, Italy and France, ranked ahead of China.

At the start of the year, China ranked eighth in assessed financial contributions to the UN peacekeeping missions' biannual budget of US$7 billion.

China has set up two specific training grounds for peacekeeping personnel, and the competition is extremely rigorous. In the case of peacekeeping police candidates, they must be Communist Party members with five years of police experience. They have to go through several rounds of exams, from those set by Chinese examiners to others conducted by the UN. On average, only one in 10 candidates are able to become peacekeepers.

The first Chinese peacekeeping police were sent to East Timor in 2000, while the first unit of riot police was sent to Haiti in 2005.

Mr Wu said eight Chinese peacekeepers had died on duty.

The Foreign Ministry said that by the end of the year, China would have sent a total of about 20,000 peacekeeping staff to participate in 22 missions.

The total number of UN staff deployed on peacekeeping missions to date is about 110,000.

However, Chinese soldiers are still only involved in non-combat roles, from engineering and construction to medical units.

And analysts are curious, but cautious, about predicting when China might send combat troops.

The United Nations does not have troops of its own and relies on member states to contribute troops.

China could offer combat troops if it wanted to, but one security analyst said that with China's firm foreign policy of non-interference, this seemed unlikely at the moment.

'Even if we are sending peacekeeping troops under the United Nations framework, if a conflict arises between two opposing sides, Chinese troops will be forced to open fire on one side. And it will no doubt become enemies with that side,' the analyst said.