The United Nations-African Union force sent to protect civilians from Arab militias in Sudan's Darfur is in trouble. Last July, the Security Council approved sending 19,555 troops by December 31. Barely half the troops have arrived. Among those making good on their commitments is China, albeit sending only three soldiers.
Political factors are at play, given Beijing's close ties with the oil-supplying regime in Khartoum and the 446 peacekeepers China has on duty with another UN mission in southern Sudan. Nevertheless, this paltry contribution to the Darfur force is deceptive. China's role in peacekeeping has been growing steadily since it joined the UN's special committee on peacekeeping in November 1988.
By last month, 1,824 Chinese were serving on 13 of the 17 peacekeeping operations among a total force of 82,541 troops and police, reports the UN department of peacekeeping operations. In 2005, there were 1,042 Chinese peacekeepers.
China, with 2.25 million active personnel, could and should do more peacekeeping, though. The largest contributor to peacekeeping operations is Pakistan, which has assigned 10,610 troops from its 619,000-strong military. India has sent 9,357, out of a total force of 1.4 million. Even disaster-prone Bangladesh manages to deploy 9,856 peacekeepers.
And it is likely that Beijing will do more. Peacekeepers are paid for by China's rising contributions to the UN's budget. The UN allots US$1,100 per month for each peacekeeper, substantially more than the monthly salary of most developing-nation soldiers. If China is subsidising foreign armies, rivals and allies alike, it may as well send its troops to do the job.
Money is not the only factor, though. China's role has been rising as the army gets smarter - both in terms of its bombs and its brains.
China's effort to leverage the military's force with greater brainpower has been gathering momentum for a decade. In 2003, the military began a 'strategic project for talented people' to produce officers to develop and lead troops armed with hi-tech weapons. By 2010, civilian institutions will be educating two-fifths of new naval officers, notes the security information website, Global- Security.org. The army is encouraging frontline officers to earn degrees.
Just how much use this education will be remains to be seen. Western firms find most Chinese college graduates are strong on theory and knowledge, but struggle with practical applications.
Complementing this theory is increasing exposure to on-the-job education through peacekeeping operations. That China is playing a bigger role reflects growing confidence borne of better-trained and better-educated troops. Furthermore, only the best and brightest are sent.
So far they seem to have passed themselves off with aplomb in the eyes of foreign diplomats, generals and journalists. Indeed, if other nations took peacekeeping as seriously, there might be fewer instances of UN troops abusing civilians.
The presence of Chinese troops is also helping to burnish China's self-proclaimed credentials as a peaceful and responsible rising power.
To some, Beijing's willingness to support UN missions in Africa is about nurturing diplomatic ties to lock up minerals. That may be so; international power politics is not known for free lunches and altruism. But it would be odd if Chinese blue helmets were not becoming a common sight in Africa.
China will doubtless pay no heed to the critics. Beijing has little choice but to play a larger part through supporting peace and disaster operations; these help prop up security that provides benefits in terms of international peace, stability and trade.
Such order allows China the freedom to focus fewer resources on security and more on developing the economic power that underlies its rise. In time, it will emerge as a much needed additional heavyweight in the peacekeeping game.
David Fullbrook is an independent researcher and writer on Asian affairs