Honor Guard of the People's Liberation Army in China. Photo: Demetrio J. Espinosa, U.S. Marine Corps.
Honor Guard of the People's Liberation Army in China. Photo: Demetrio J. Espinosa, U.S. Marine Corps.

Equipment for China’s first peacekeeping helicopter unit is being shipped to Port Sudan in East Africa. It will be in the hands of 140 Chinese soldiers in mid-January 2017, when they start their assignment in North Darfur State for the United Nations mission in Sudan.

Beijing’s commitment to the UN peacekeeping operations has steadily grown in the past years, and with it also emerge the contradictions and weaknesses plaguing the Chinese humanitarian policy.

A peacekeeping actor on the rise

In a shift of its earlier behavior, when it focused only on non-combat duties, China now dispatches a considerable number of combat troops for UN operations, mostly in Africa. Consistently with its non-alliance policy, Beijing does not participate in multilateral security schemes other than the UN peacekeeping. Among the five permanent UN Security Council members, China is the biggest supplier of peacekeepers. It is now engaged in eleven missions, and in five of them it deploys contingent troops – Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lebanon, Liberia, Mali, South Sudan and Sudan.

As of last August 31, the Chinese dragon has become the twelfth-largest contributor to UN peacekeeping operations in terms of military and police personnel, with 2,640 units on the ground, and the tenth-largest for troops in combat roles (2,440 soldiers, with 1,050 deployed in South Sudan); it is currently the second-largest financial contributor to UN peacekeeping missions, behind the United States and ahead of Japan.

Beijing is completing the registration of an 8,000-strong permanent peacekeeping force at the UN. In China’s hope, part of this contingent could be integrated in the 4,000-personnel rapid deployment unit that the UN secretariat has projected for the organization’s peacekeeping tasks. Furthermore, the Chinese government will provide the African Union with US$100 million in military assistance for its peacekeeping operations.

Operational failures

Growing engagement in world affairs is always followed by growing scrutiny; and China’s peacekeeping policy has not been exempted from this rule.

In early October, a US-based humanitarian organization reported that last July Chinese peacekeepers had moved out of their positions inside a civilian protection camp in South Sudan as armed clashes raged between local government’s troops and opposition forces. The episode occurred a day after a Chinese infantry armored vehicle was assaulted and two Chinese soldiers got killed; Chinese troops’ withdrawal into the adjacent base of the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) would have left civilians at the mercy of government and rebel forces.

China’s Ministry of Defense immediately dismissed this version, which was drafted on the basis of interviews with local witnesses and UNMISS officials, stating that its military personnel had acted under the UNMISS instructions and protection mandate – in this regard, a UN investigation into the July fighting is under way.

Now, the alleged misconduct of Chinese combat peacekeepers in South Sudan could be linked only in part to their technical unpreparedness. Troops engaged in UN peacekeeping missions are overstretched and operate in very challenging environments, often with no adequate medical care. But the real problem is that the UN peacekeeping has structural deficiencies mirroring those in the organization as a whole. In this sense, it is usually the lack of political will by major powers that undermines UN humanitarian efforts in war-torn countries; and the UN has a long track record of setbacks as far as peacekeeping operations are concerned – Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and so forth.

Like the old colonial powers

The Chinese peacekeeping campaign is also questioned for Beijing’s perceived political ambivalence vis-à-vis the ultimate goals of UN humanitarian efforts.

It is now hard to buy the old pattern of China working as a neutral force in Africa as opposed to Western countries and their colonial legacy there. While Beijing wants more say in the UN decision-making process, the West makes allegations that the Chinese government is lobbying to streamline funding for human rights-related actions connected with UN peacekeeping missions.

Still, the US and European nations have often been blamed for fanning the flames of war in the developing world, selling arms to the very autocrats and dictators they apparently claim to despise. The Chinese leaders do not scorn their (undemocratic) interlocutors across the world at all and, like Washington and its European allies, supply them with weapons fueling the conflicts where the UN is then expected to send peacekeeping troops.

In the decade up to 2015, China exported to Africa US$2,2 billion in arms; of these sales, US$254 million ended up in Sudan, US$12 million in South Sudan and US$61 million in Chad (which is involved in the Darfur crisis in Sudan), according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

The illusion of stability

In essence, China deploys peacekeeping troops because it needs to protect its multi-billion investments and numerous assets, enterprises and citizens abroad. Through its peacekeepers, Beijing can also elevate its status as a responsible stakeholder and security provider in the international community and improve operational capabilities of Chinese military and police forces.

China cannot but advance its plan to increase connectivity between Eurasia and Africa, thanks to a network of new land- and sea-based Silk roads, in the presence of a deteriorated security environment across this vast space.

In trying to maximize its peacekeeping undertaking, China finds itself in a difficult position. It is, in fact, obliged to thread a middle way between the implementation of the UN mandate and its non-interference policy in the internal affairs of unstable states hosting UN peacekeeping missions – and that, by chance, are in large part its trade clients.

This inevitably limits Beijing’s ability to play an effective stabilization role in Africa, but the concept could be extended to other regions as well, not least the Middle Est.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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