Photo Credit: The Jamestown Foundation
Beijing’s stance towards United Nations peacekeeping operations has grown considerably from near-total disavowal when China first joined the UN, to its increasingly central role today. Early in its membership, China tended to view peacekeeping operations as little more than imperial advances under the false shroud of international legitimacy. At the time, during the peak of the Cold War, it seemed to Beijing that the United Nations was merely a structure that allowed the United States and the USSR to fight proxy wars, while taking advantage of the international community to legitimize the action. In the 1980s, their stance softened, and China voted for the extension of the peacekeeping mission in Cyprus. China began making financial contributions to the coffers of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in 1982, but still maintained a wary distance, abstaining from votes on any Chapter VII operations. In 2000, China sent its first group of police under the UN banner to East Timor. Today, China contributes more troops to UN peacekeeping operations than any other member of the P5 and its financial contributions have also increased in tandem.
Part of this new Chinese assertiveness in the realm of peacekeeping is likely motivated by humanitarian interest and concern over the societal impacts of instability. However, one would be foolish to overlook the political and strategic advantages that China stands to gain. Through increasing commitments to peacekeeping, China can battle test its troops, extend protections to its infrastructure and resource investments abroad, bolster Chinese soft power in the regions where it sends peacekeepers, increase its power within the United Nations structure, and gain international credibility through participation.
Peacekeeping as Training Arena
China’s military is massive by any standard. The People’s Liberation Army stands at 2.3 million active troops and the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary internal organization that encompasses the roles of both police and national guard, has 1.5 million active members. The PLA has the second largest military budget in the world, eclipsing all but that of the United States. Although that massive budget has been put to work in recent years to modernize and update the force, revising training procedures and purchasing new weapons and defense systems, it still lacks an important element; experience.
Despite the massive expenditure and scope of the Chinese military, it is almost entirely lacking in battlefield experience. The PLA has not been an active participant in a large conflict since the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, and although border skirmishes with the Vietnamese continued up until 1990, Chinese troops have not been exposed to war conditions since. China’s stepped-up commitments to peacekeeping, however, have provided an avenue to test Beijing’s troops in a combat environment.
One could argue that the need for this training was evident when Chinese peacekeepers abandoned defensive positions in the South Sudanese capital of Juba. The AP reported that Chinese peacekeepers not only “fled en masse” from their defensive positions, but also left behind weapons and ammunition. Needless to say, Chinese officials hit back, calling the accusations “malicious speculation,” but the larger point remains true; Chinese soldiers are mostly a green force, with little combat experience. With no battlefield history, evaluating the effectiveness of their forces may be more of a thought experiment in Beijing than an assessment based upon the lessons of past missions.
By providing increasing numbers of troops to the DPKO , China gains the opportunity to put its newly trained recruits into a combat zone to test their mettle and instill a certain level of comfort with the gritty realities of the battlefield without the international stigma of unilaterally sending troops into a foreign country.
Protection of Chinese Investments
Chinese commitments to the DPKO have also been targeted in a way that underlines how Beijing seeks to gain security for its own overseas investments through the auspices of the UN. With the unpleasant memory of Chinese economic losses in Libya, Chinese forces can be sent to ensure stability in countries of economic importance. Utilizing the DPKO also helps Beijing combat the optics of what might look like an imperial operation, something that has hamstrung American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This overtly economic reasoning may be drawn from a lesson Chinese officials learned during the Arab Spring and resulting civil war in Libya. Before the war against the government, led by the rebel National Transitional Council, there were reportedly 75 Chinese companies and over 36,000 nationals in the country, working on a variety of infrastructure projects. Furthermore, the three major Chinese oil firms, CNPC, Sinopec Group, and CNOOC had been investing in new petroleum projects. In a climate of fear for the safety of contractors, the vast majority of these Chinese nationals were evacuated, abandoning billions of dollars of construction and excavation equipment behind. Having been burned by this experience, top policy-makers will be keen to maintain political stability in countries where Chinese firms are working and see UN peacekeeping missions as an excellent avenue to do so.
Keeping a watchful eye over new Chinese development projects in Africa is arguably one of the main strategic goals of increasing peacekeeping troop contributions. A spokesperson for the South Sudanese President described Chinese commitments to the UN as designed “to help guard the country’s embattled oil fields and protect Chinese workers and installations” and there is good economic evidence to support this thesis. Diplomatic sources involved in the negotiations of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) claimed that Chinese officials essentially asked to have their troops placed where the oil was. While nakedly political, the decision makes sense from Beijing’s perspective; the South Sudanese petroleum minister told reporters that Chinese investments made up for 75% of foreign investment in the young country’s oil sector.
Although UNMISS is designed to protect civilians and ensure stability, China has been able to use the situation to protect its economic investments for pennies on the dollar. Avoiding the large, unilateral interventions that got the United States labelled as an imperial power, Beijing has still managed to get its oil investments protected by professional militaries, but with reasonably small troops commitments on its own part.
Bolstering Chinese Regional Soft Power
Beyond the benefits to military preparedness and protection of investments, increasing Chinese peacekeeper numbers helps to further soft power in the region, in this case in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in South Sudan. Chinese companies have long been associated with projects in the region, building infrastructure and setting up small businesses. African perceptions of China are mixed, with many assuming that the economic giant is only interested in exploiting African resources to assist its rise to power. Although only a small piece of the public relations puzzle, the deployment of peacekeeping troops is helping, in small part, to fight these perceptions.
African perceptions of China and its deals and work in the continent are generally, but not overwhelmingly favorable, according to the Afrobarometer. Around 63% of respondents in 36 African nations told pollsters their view of China was either “somewhat” or “very” positive, with infrastructure investment and business development being the main drivers of goodwill. With this basis of support, Chinese peacekeepers are an added positive influence that allows for goodwill campaigns to win over support of populations in certain states.
For example, the introduction of Chinese troops in South Sudan was received positively, providing not only military support for stability, but also interaction between Chinese troops and South Sudanese civilians. Peacekeepers are out on patrol, meeting with locals, teaching some Mandarin, and visiting local universities to chat with students. Even something as simple as a selfie can extend a metaphorical handshake between Chinese soldiers and local people. While these interactions are largely negligible on the larger, macro-level, they are effective in the communities where the troops are operating, helping to increase positive perceptions of China in a realm other than business. These increased deployments of Chinese soldiers present an opportunity to expand Chinese soft power in Africa.
Grow Chinese Influence Within the UN
New commitments to peacekeeping forces also give China leverage in negotiations about who gets the top post in certain United Nations bureaus, particularly the DPKO, which China has reportedly been eyeing. The Department has been under French leadership since 1996, when the job was promised to a Frenchman in order to secure Paris’s support for the candidacy of Kofi Annan to the Secretary General position. In recent years, however, Western nations have been pulling back from peacekeeping, leaving the heaviest lifting to other nations. For example, some of the largest troop contributors to UN peacekeeping are India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Ethiopia.
Within this context of waning Western dominance, China is poised to move up within the UN bureaucracy. Andrew Witthoeft argued in The Diplomat that the global community may be moving into a new era of a China and Russia-dominated United Nations. In an organization that ostensibly stands for the interests and aspirations of every nation on earth, it is difficult to make a case for quasi-permanent French control of a department when Chinese contributions of troops and money to UN peacekeeping surpass those of France. With ever increasing numbers of Chinese soldiers being put on the line at the service of the United Nations and new budgetary promises from Beijing, it seems inevitable that China will soon control of some or all of the DPKO.
Skeptics fear Chinese control of the DPKO could shift the organization’s focus away from humanitarian goals and towards safeguarding Chinese investments under the shroud of pursuing world peace. Ultimately, this could be true. In the case that Beijing nabs the top job in the DPKO, it would have more control over the development of guidelines and standard operating procedures for UN missions across the globe. With this new influence over policy making, Chinese officials could steer resources towards specific locations within regions where it has economic interests. In other words, if a specific mandated mission covers an entire country, Chinese influence could see troops diverted to patrolling areas where Chinese businesses have extensive investments, potentially at the expense of other civilian areas that lack Chinese investments.
Provide International Credibility
While tangible benefits like protecting investments and training troops may be the most obvious, there are other upsides to peacekeeping. As China grows in economic clout and power, it seeks to expand into the role of a global power, and increased global activity is part and parcel of this trajectory. By sending its troops abroad, China is beginning to act more like the superpower it fancies itself to be. This new expansion of power projection comes at a price, but it is a way for Beijing to gain further international credibility as a power broker on the world stage.
While in the years past, great powers became great by conquering other places, the modern understanding of great power has softened in tone. The American age of imperialism, marked by its expansion into the place of the retreating Spanish Empire, was arguably when the United States first became a true great power. The British Empire, on which the sun never set, was made a great power through its massive naval superiority, and arguably draconian colonial practices. Today, however, China’s expansion into a great power role is defined by its ever-climbing GDP, population expansion, territorial claims, and now, its growing role in maintaining global security. With these new commitments to the DPKO, Beijing is underwriting its responsibility as a powerful state to ensure peace outside its own borders.
There are growing pains to this new role, however. A piece in the Wall Street Journal outlined the emotional turmoil that the deaths of two Chinese peacekeepers in South Sudan caused in China. Pointing out that American audiences are somewhat adapted tothe idea of its young soldiers returning home draped in a flag, Chinese audiences have never had to cope with this reality. One of the soldiers killed in Juba had told his worried mother before he left, “China is so powerful, who can bully us Chinese people?” His question was brutally answered, and he and his colleague’s deaths have been bringing home the cost of global power. Under the guiding hand of the authorities, Chinese reaction to the tragedy has been a stiff upper lip, however, with one commentator arguing that the pain “reflects China’s responsibilities as a major power.”
Despite pushback, domestic growing pains are no match for the new, global China. Xi Jinping announced at the 2015 United Nations General Assembly that China would commit 8,000 additional troops to a UN Peacekeeping standby force along with $100 million for the African Union’s new standby force. By providing both men and funding to the United Nations, Beijing is channeling its rise through the tracks of legitimate power projection. The decision to become increasingly involved in peacekeeping presents a message to the world that the Chinese are interested in securing world peace, not world domination. In the same UNGA that President Xi announced the new standby force and financial support, he also explicitly told the representatives that regardless of “how strong China may become, China will never pursue hegemony, expansion, or sphere of influence.”
By openly projecting this willingness and eagerness to participate in global community, China gains respect from other countries around the world. Full respect from those who are unlikely to be affected, and wary reassurance for those that might fear a nascent Chinese superpower. In a way, this is the greatest benefit for China; when Beijing is active in the United Nations, it provides credibility that can act as a smokescreen to cover up aggressive, nakedly expansionist activities in the South China Sea. It acts as the classic magician’s trick, where your attention is diverted to something flashy in order to get you to avert your eyes from the more important goings-on in the other hand.
From Skeptic to Beneficiary
Beijing has moved from its initial stance of criticizing peacekeeping as a mere tool of imperialist expansionism to finding that the glove is much more comfortable when worn on the other hand. China has morphed from condemning other nations for intervention to realizing the benefits of participating in peacekeeping. With this newfound attitude, Beijing stands to increase its influence on the world stage. If it continues to increase its contributions, we may be headed towards a Sino-centric Department of Peacekeeping Operations.