Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 11

On March 25, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1590 authorizing the UN to deploy peacekeeping forces in Sudan. Five days later, China announced that they would contribute personnel to the peacekeeping operation, signaling the latest development in China’s evolving approach to protecting its national interests through multilateral international interventions.

After China joined the UN in 1971, it adamantly opposed peacekeeping operations (PKO) and refused to contribute money or resources to any operations. Adhering to a strict definition of sovereignty and non-interference, China rejected international interventions that supposedly violated their notions of peaceful co-existence and potentially invited international scrutiny into China’s own domestic affairs. However, in 1988 China joined the special committee on peacekeeping operations, and sent its first military observers the following year and the first company of engineers to Cambodia in April 1992. Since then, China’s participation in UN peacekeeping operations has dramatically expanded by type and numbers of personnel and location of missions. This year, China is planning to send more than 400 military engineering, medical and transport teams, as well as military observers, civil policemen and political officials to join the UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan.

What contributed to this change in outlook and what does China gain from participation in peacekeeping operations? Primarily, China’s reform and opening process has steadily enmeshed its economy with the international system, forcing Chinese policymakers to take a broader and more globalized view of China’s national interests. Meanwhile, China’s economic growth and military modernization process has caused concern about China’s “rise,” resulting in efforts to reassure neighbors that China strives to be a “responsible power.” Actively participating in United Nations peacekeeping missions furthers China’s image as a status quo nation that seeks to contribute to international stability through diplomatic and security measures.

China sees several important geo-strategic benefits from participating in UN peacekeeping operations. First, participation increases China’s involvement in UN activities and boosts their influence not only in regions where Chinese personnel serve, but on the UN Security Council and among other voting members of the UN as well. Second, wearing a blue helmet promotes China’s reputation as a concerned, responsible world power. Images of Chinese police officers and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers wearing blue helmets and Chinese national flags project a positive image that dispels fears of a rising China. Third, participating in peacekeeping contributes to China’s growing presence in key nations and regions. In weak states that have failed, or are on the verge of failing, China’s presence in peacekeeping missions discourages Taiwan from aggressively courting the local government with generous aid offers in an attempt to gain that country’s diplomatic recognition. Providing peacekeepers and foreign assistance to these states ensures that Beijing’s “One China” principle will be recognized. China’s deployment of troops to Liberia shortly after it switched recognition from Taiwan to China was quickly followed up with aid packages that included food aid, motorcycles for the Liberian police force, a rebuilt sports complex, and even a US $2 million grant to help restructure the Liberian army and provide pensions and pay-outs for demobilizing troops. In an unusual example, China has recently provided over 100 riot police from the People’s Armed Police (PAP) to the UN mission in Haiti, their only deployment in the Western hemisphere, and a nation that still recognizes Taiwan. While Haiti has not switched recognition from Taiwan to China, it can be assumed that this goal factored into China’s decision to deploy police on that mission.

The PLA and PAP also directly benefit from involvement in UN peacekeeping operations. First, participation enhances training and skills that promote the modernization of the PLA and PAP. Second, deployment provides the opportunity to field-test equipment and methods, gain first-hand experience in the field and assess the capabilities of other nations deploying or supporting the mission. Third, as China’s gross domestic product rises, their share of UN contributions increases, arguing for greater involvement in operations and greater reimbursement for deployments from UN coffers.

Before deploying on peacekeeping missions, PLA and PAP personnel undergo specialized training, including intensive English language instruction, communications and driver training. A dedicated training facility near Beijing serves as a showcase site for visiting foreign dignitaries and media. Because of the short deployment cycles in the UN system, experienced personnel regularly return to their units with greater skills and experience which they disseminate to their colleagues. Additionally, deployed units are provided the newest equipment. For instance, medical units bring the latest in field ambulances and mobile operating theaters, while other units utilize communications equipment and light arms which they are able to test and refine under field conditions. Overseas deployments test PLA logistics systems, and provide opportunities to experience and learn from other nation’s systems, including the United States which supports several UN missions around the world. The added skills and experience acquired by PLA and PAP peacekeepers contributes to the overall modernization of the force.

As China’s GDP grows, it will pay an increasingly large share of peacekeeping assessments. The five permanent members of the Security Council pay about 63 percent of mission costs. While there have been calls from the U.S. and elsewhere to reform the UN PKO assessment formula, China feels that the peacekeeping scale should continue to reflect the principles of capacity to pay, rather than setting floor or ceiling rates, where presumably the U.S. would reach its cap quickly (the U.S. caps its contribution at 25 percent, while China currently contributes a little over 2 percent) and China would be forced to contribute more than it currently does. However, because China will undoubtedly make larger payments towards future operations, some argue that greater involvement by China’s military makes financial sense. For middle to lower income countries, participating in UN operations is financially rewarding because the UN monthly reimbursement rate of approximately $1,100 per person is higher than the monthly salary in many armies. By participating in peacekeeping operations, Chinese troops and their organizations benefit from the experience that they gain, without paying a steep price in their operating budgets.

On balance, China has benefited as well as contributed to the overall peacekeeping system. Since 1990, six Chinese servicemen have died and dozens have been wounded while on UN peacekeeping operations, signifying China’s long-term commitment to peacekeeping operations. Chinese support for contributing personnel to the UN peacekeeping system remains solid as their recent pledge to support the UNMIS mission in Sudan attests. China’s participation has benefited the capabilities of individual soldiers and entire units within the army and advanced China’s global interests in key regions where it has vested interests, such as Sudan where China is a major investor and export destination for Sudanese oil.

As of March, China provides more troops, military observers and civilian police to UN Peacekeeping operations than the other permanent members of the Security Council, though China’s current contribution of 1,042 personnel is small compared to Pakistan’s 9,903, Bangladesh’s 7,978, and India’s 6,009.

The table below shows China’s contributions to UN Peacekeeping Missions through 2004.

(Source: China’s 2004 National Defense White Paper, Information Office of the State Council) Note: The above chart does not reflect the approximately 400 personnel that China is planning to contribute to the UNMIS mission in Sudan.

Drew Thompson is Assistant Director at the Freeman Chair in China Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.