China's growing peacekeeping commitment to UN shows shift in foreign policy

A reluctance to commit combat forces to international hot spots has yielded to a pragmatic approach that sees value in the risky deployments

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 3:57am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 7:37pm

From declining to join peacekeeping operations in the 1970s and '80s to sending combat forces for the first time to war-torn Mali this year, China's contribution to international security missions has changed radically.

Now analysts say Beijing is using its growing readiness to commit resources to help counter fears its rise may threaten other nations.

In the last decade, China has increased its deployment of uniformed personnel to UN peacekeeping missions twentyfold, sending not only engineers but also military and transportation experts, police and medical staff to operations, which have so far been mostly confined to Africa.

But sending combat troops to Mali, in West Africa, indicated a major shift in China's peacekeeping approach. Over the past two decades, Beijing had focused on providing logistical and medical personnel, Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said.

"Peacekeeping is always the best [way of exercising] soft power to counter any 'threat theories' in the international [sphere]. Even in the past, the United States used peacekeeping operations to counter the former Soviet Union's global impact during the cold war period," Wong said.

"In addition, Mali has kept a good diplomatic and military relationship with China for more than half a century. And sending troops to Mali for peacekeeping missions could provide many live drills and training opportunities for the People's Liberation Army."

Sun Yun, a Washington-based China foreign policy expert and a former analyst for the International Crisis Group in Beijing, said countering the fears of a "China threat" was one of Beijing's goals in participating in UN peacekeeping missions.

Beijing used such contributions as a concrete example of China's efforts to promote global peace and stability, Sun said.

"In those countries where peacekeeping operations helped to stabilise the situation … China's contribution has, to a certain extent, built [Beijing's] good reputation," she said.

"However, the contributions do not negate or erase the fear about China in other parts of the world where China's behaviour is destabilising, such as in East Asia and the South China Sea. If you ask Vietnam whether China is less of a threat to it because Beijing contributes peacekeepers to Mali, the answer is almost a guaranteed no."

China became one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in 1971. Beijing was initially reluctant to join UN peacekeeping operations owing to its diplomatic principle of non-intervention.

In 1992, at the invitation of late King Norodom Sihanouk, China sent 800 military engineers and technicians to Cambodia to help with postwar reconstruction. China observed UN peacekeeping missions in the years that followed, and established its own peacekeeping office in December of 2001.

In February 2002, Beijing told the UN it would join the UN's stand-by arrangement system, meaning China was prepared to send peacekeepers within 90 days of receiving a mission request. That October, the powerful Central Military Commission approved the establishment of stand-by units for peacekeeping missions.

China's combat troops will abide by the UN's peacekeeping regulations
Xu Guangyu, military expert

Retired major general Xu Guangyu said dispatching forces to Mali did not mean China would change its "non- intervention" policy.

"China's combat troops will abide by the UN's peacekeeping regulations. Soldiers are allowed to open fire only for self-defence purposes, and never take positions to help either party during a civil war," Xu said.

Fourteen Chinese soldiers had been killed while serving on peacekeeping missions, according to the UN.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice-president for defence and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, said that in the past two decades, China's economic ties to Africa had pushed its involvement there.

"China's growing economic stake in Africa and the increased presence of Chinese nationals are two major reasons for Beijing's interest and involvement," he said.

"Beijing wants to promote greater political stability in countries where Chinese businesses and people may be at risk."

Carpenter said China's motivations were understandable.

"Some Third World societies may welcome the involvement of a country that only recently went through the process of economic modernisation - the same challenge that many of them face. A Chinese presence also may reduce the perception of peacekeeping missions as Western-controlled ventures," he said.

"On the other hand, a more visible Chinese role … could cause the rise of the same kind of resentment that has occurred … towards other countries involved in peacekeeping missions."