China has offered to send more than 500 soldiers to the UN force seeking to contain Islamist militants in Mali in what would be its biggest contribution to UN peacekeeping, diplomats said in New York.
The move could be a bid to overcome tensions with the West over the Syria conflict and to strengthen China's relations in Africa, where it is a major buyer of oil and other resources, diplomats and experts said.
France, which intervened in the West African nation in January, hopes to hand over to UN peacekeepers in July. More than 6,500 African troops are in the country, but the UN is looking for at least 3,000 more.
The final number of Chinese troops who will take part has not yet been decided, diplomats said.
"China has offered between 500 and 600 soldiers," one senior diplomat said. "We don't have details yet on what kind of troops they would be providing."
Another UN diplomat confirmed the numbers, saying: "It is a significant move by China."
Both diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity as talks are continuing. At least 155 of the Chinese troops are expected to be engineers, a UN official said.
Confirming Beijing was considering proposals by the UN and African nations to increase its role in African peacekeeping, a Chinese diplomat said yesterday a decision had not yet been made on whether China would send combat troops to the continent.
"China is seriously considering a United Nations' proposal early this year to modernise its peacekeeping operations in Africa," the diplomat said, citing UN plans to deploy a fleet of its own surveillance drones in missions in Central and West Africa.
Analysts said China had a stake in African security issues because Beijing needed to protect its investments in Africa and the growing Chinese community on the continent.
"It is necessary for Beijing to increase its peacekeeping role in Africa as it conforms with China's expanding interests and stake in the continent," said Professor Xiao Xian , an international relations specialist at Yunnan University.
China's ambassador to the UN, Li Baodong , has signalled support for the battle against extremists in Africa.
"The fight against terrorism in Africa should in no way have to be fought by African countries alone," Li told a UN Security Council debate this month on conflict in Africa.
"We will continue to do what we can to provide support and assistance to African countries to jointly address the threat that terrorism has brought."