By Ben Yunmo Wang – From ardent opposition in the 1970s to avid support in the 2000s, the People’s Republic of China has progressively opened up to participating in United Nations peacekeeping operations around the world. Although negative past experiences – as well as competition with Taiwan for diplomatic recognition – had previously made China a staunch opponent of peacekeeping operations, the benefits of demonstrating global responsibility, extending economic and diplomatic influence and obtaining operational military experience convinced leaders in Beijing to make a strategic change of heart.
While China’s engagement increased gradually throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, it was the dramatic surge in Chinese peacekeeper presence in the 21st century that truly announced Beijing’s arrival as a major player in U.N. peacekeeping operations. From January 2000 to January 2009, the number of Chinese personnel deployed worldwide to U.N. peacekeeping operations increased from only 52 to 2,146. As of March 2013, China was ranked 15th among top troop-contributing countries, more than any of the other four permanent members of the Security Council. This amounts to 1,860 troops, policemen, and military observers deployed across nine peacekeeping operations in North and sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Cyprus.
Examining China’s changing foreign policy objectives helps to shed light on its new attitude toward peacekeeping. Historically, China’s attitude toward peacekeeping was shaped largely by its foreign policy objectives regarding Taiwan. China viewed foreign states’ recognition of Taiwan as a challenge to its “one China” principle and in the ’90s vetoed several peacekeeping operations in countries that maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan. In 2003, China coerced the Liberian government into switching its allegiance from Taiwan by threatening to veto the mandate of the U.N. Observer Mission in Liberia. In return for Liberia’s compliance, China authorized the peacekeeping operations and dispatched peacekeepers to assist in the country’s reconstruction. By 2005, China’s deployment in Liberia had reached nearly 600.
Despite the rising level of cross-Strait tension in this period, as China began to attach greater importance to creating a more benign international image, it also displayed more flexibility on the peacekeeping issue. In 2004, for example, it approved and dispatched peacekeepers to MINUSTAH, the mission in Haiti, despite Haiti’s continued recognition of Taiwan.
It was in the early 2000s that Beijing began to deliberately expand its economic and diplomatic influence overseas through trade and diplomatic leverage through participating in international organizations. A number of strategic objectives lie at the core of China’s peacekeeping engagement. Through peacekeeping, China can demonstrate to the international community its progress toward “peaceful development” as a benign and “responsible power” rather than as a threat to the international system. Furthermore, increased involvement in international peacekeeping provides a venue for China to eventually influence and shape global norms.
China’s contributions to peacekeeping reflect these strategic objectives, while continuing to reflect the country’s traditional principle of upholding national sovereignty. China remains risk-averse, and has tended to avoid potentially dangerous peace enforcement missions. Both for this reason and because it continues to be wary of the legitimacy of foreign intervention in general, it emphasizes the peacekeeping principle of use of force as a last resort and only in self-defense. As a result, Chinese peacekeepers are primarily engineers and medical staff and provide basic infrastructure and health care rather than engaging in military activities. China has not contributed combat troops.
According to the Chinese Ministry of Defense: “Chinese peacekeeping troops have built and repaired 8,000-odd km of roads, repaired and constructed more than 230 bridges, defused over 8,700 landmines and other explosives, transported 430,000 tons of materials, maneuvered 7 million km and cured 60,000-plus patients.” These projects are viewed by officials and analysts in Beijing as an important facet of soft power.
China’s engagement in peacekeeping also enables the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to obtain valuable experience through peacekeeping. Engagement in military operations other than war – including peacekeeping in addition to anti-piracy, disaster relief and humanitarian aid – strengthens the PLA’s crisis response and strategic communication capabilities. Most major troop-contributing countries, such as India and Bangladesh, consider the opportunity to obtain military experience in relatively low-risk U.N. mission environments as a major incentive to participate.
Finally, media and military analysts have speculated that China’s peacekeeping participation protects its existing economic interests. However, with the exception of Sudan, China’s peacekeeping deployments have been in countries with little substantial trade relations, or where trade and investments followed rather than preceded troop deployment. The often strict regulations applying to U.N. missions also prevent Chinese peacekeepers from independently pursuing China’s national interests through U.N. deployments. However, it can be argued that the goodwill generated by peacekeepers, combined with the presence of other Chinese troops under bilateral and regional agreements, facilitates economic relationships with host governments.
Despite China’s sometimes controversial global presence, its involvement in peacekeeping has been well-received by the global community, and Chinese peacekeepers consistently receive favorable ratings for their performance and discipline. Currently, China’s peacekeeping engagement has been positive for both China and the U.N. In the long term, how Beijing chooses to project its influence and shape peacekeeping norms will determine whether and how China continues to be an active contributor to U.N. peacekeeping.
Ben Yunmo Wang was an intern with the Future of Peace Operations program.
PLA Daily, “Chinese blue helmets” renowned as devoted peacekeepers,” April 26, 2010. http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/news-channels/pla-daily-commentary/2010-04/26/content_4194309.htm (accessed April 29, 2013).