China’s Discourse and Interests Related to Its Role in U.N. Peacekeeping

Publication: China Brief Volume: 20 Issue: 19

Image: PLA soldiers serving with the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) stand in formation for an awards ceremony in October 2017. (Image source: PRC Foreign Ministry, October 2, 2017)

Introduction

In his video message marking the International Day of United Nations (UN) Peacekeepers on May 29, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Ambassador to the UN Zhang Jun (张军) said that China is a major contributor to UN peacekeeping operations (UNPKO) and will “implement its commitment to multilateralism and world peace with concrete actions and make greater contributions to peacekeeping operations for the maintenance of international peace and security” (Xinhua, May 30). On September 18, the PRC State Council Information Office published its first white paper on peacekeeping operations, noting in the introduction: “The Chinese government is issuing this white paper to review the glorious journey of China’s armed forces in the UNPKOs over the past 30 years, to expound their ideas on safeguarding world peace in the new era, and to elaborate on the efforts they make” (Xinhua, September 18). Together, these recent messages show the importance that China places on participating in UNPKO, and underscore China’s future readiness to deploy more troops and provide more funding for peacekeeping operations.

China’s participation in UNPKO began in 1988, when it officially joined the UN Special Committee on PKO. The PRC sent few engineering, transport, or medical units to UNPKO throughout the 1990s. However, this began to change in the new millennium. From January 2000 to January 2009, the number of Chinese personnel deployed to UNPKO increased from 52 to 2,146. [1] The new era of Chinese peacekeeping officially began in September 2015, when PRC President Xi Jinping gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly announcing that China would shoulder more responsibilities in maintaining world peace. Xi pledged that China would train 8,000 troops for UNPKO, commit $1 billion to a ten-year joint China-UN Peace and Development Fund, and provide $100 million in military assistance to the African Union (Xinhua, September 29, 2015).

Image: China’s troop contributions to UN PKO by mission type (Source: UN Peacekeeping)

Today, President Xi’s 2015 pledge has been fulfilled. In addition to supplying around 3 percent of total UNPKO forces, China contributes around 15 percent of the UNPKO budget (USIP, September 2018; UN Peacekeeping, undated). Since 2018, China has maintained a 8,000-person standby force to carry out peacekeeping missions for the United Nations (China Daily, March 31, 2019). Further, although for many years no Chinese national held a senior post on any UNPKO missions, last year Ambassador Huang Xia was appointed special envoy for hotspot regions in the African Great Lakes Region (Xinhua, January 23, 2019).

Image: Troops provided to UNPKO by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. (Source: UN Peacekeeping)

The number of Chinese troops deployed for UNPKO has remained largely steady since 2004. Chinese troops are mostly engaged in missions on the African continent, and do not constitute a majority of peacekeeping personnel in any of the missions. China is currently the second largest financial contributor to the UNPKO budget, following the United States. It is also worth noting that while China ranks tenth in countries’ troop contributions to UNPKO, its contributions are significantly larger than those of other permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) (see accompanying graphic). In March 2020 the UN Security Council adopted China’s proposed resolution on the “safety and security of peacekeepers,” thereby demonstrating a new development in China’s contributions to UNPKO (UN, March 30). This demonstrates that China now also shapes the mechanisms of UN peacekeeping.

The Ideology and Discourse of Chinese Peacekeeping

Wang Jingwu (王京武), Dean of the National University of Defense Technology’s School of International Relations (国防科技大学国际关系学院, Guofang Keji Daxue Guoji Guanxi Xueyuan), has written that China’s participation in UNPKO is based on four principles. According to Wang, these principles are:

1) “Chinese concept” (中国理念, zhongguo linian): China promotes the development of the international political and economic order in a more just and reasonable direction, and supports the peace and development of all countries in the world.

2) “Chinese standpoint” (中国立场, zhongguo lichang): China emphasizes that UNPKO should not interfere in the internal affairs of the party concerned. China resists the hegemonic policies and double standards of certain Western countries, and supports the rights and interests of developing countries.

3) “Chinese contribution” (中国贡献, zhongguo gongxian): China provides funding to the UN peacekeeping budget, sends troops to mission areas, supports the China-United Nations Peace and Development Fund, and helps the African Union.

4) “Chinese power” (中国力量, zhongguo liliang): China is the mainstay of UN peacekeeping. From the beginning of its involvement with peacekeeping, China has gradually increased the number and variety of its peacekeeping personnel. (PLA, October 11, 2018)

These principles are in line with the PRC’s promotion of what one analyst has called “peacekeeping with Chinese characteristics” (The Diplomat, September 25). Beijing has consistently refused to adopt the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) principle—distancing itself from military interventions lacking the host government’s consent, which could undermine state sovereignty. A PRC Foreign Ministry position paper published in September lays out China’s stance on peacekeeping more explicitly, calling on UNPKO to “observe the three principles of [the] consent of parties, impartiality, and non-use of force except in self-defense and defense of the mandate, and help post-conflict countries build lasting peace” (PRC Foreign Ministry, September 10). Critics will note that this vision of peacebuilding heavily limits the ability of UNPKO to intervene in humanitarian disasters—and parallels the recasting of human rights violations in places such as Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang as being part of China’s “internal affairs.” In short, such an articulation of peacekeeping takes the teeth out of UNPKO, leading to a vision of “peace and development” that is more rhetorical than anything else.

Image: PRC President Xi Jinping addresses the UN General Assembly in September 2015 on peacekeeping issues. (Source: Xinhua)

Pragmatic Drivers of China’s Peacekeeping Efforts

China’s participation in UNPKO is frequently highlighted by state media, both domestically and abroad, to signal that China is a responsible stakeholder of the international system. This message has proven to be a steady means for the PRC to bolster its global reputation. At the same time, the PRC has not shied away from leveraging its role as a permanent member of the UNSC, and its role in directing peacekeeping operations, to pressure developing countries into complying with Beijing’s “One China” policy. In 1997, China vetoed a UNSC draft resolution to send military observers to Guatemala because of Guatemala’s official diplomatic relations with Taiwan (El País, January 12, 1997). In 1999, China vetoed a draft resolution to approve the extension of a deployment in Macedonia because of Macedonia’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan (United Nations, October 18, 2005). And in 2003, China pressured Liberia to cut ties with Taiwan by threatening to veto a mandate for a UN Observer Mission in the country (BBC, October 13, 2003).

Chinese companies have invested heavily in African infrastructure and energy sectors, and peacekeeping operations have also served as a way for the state to indirectly protect its citizens and investments abroad. For example, the largest contingent of Chinese peacekeeping troops is deployed in South Sudan, a country with the third-largest oil deposits in Africa. China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) started its business activities in Sudan in 1996. Because many foreign competitors were unwilling to do business amid an ongoing military conflict, the state-owned CNPC soon became the leading foreign investor in the local oilfields and infrastructure (CNPC, May 27, 2015).

Unlike Western countries, China never imposed sanctions on the military and political leadership of South Sudan. Instead, Chinese companies exploited opportunities for market access and economic gains. In 2017, China’s CNPC joined a consortium with the two biggest local oil corporations (Sohu, January 15, 2017). As CNPC expanded its shares in South Sudan’s oil sector, China increased its PKO in the country. As of 2020, about a thousand Chinese personnel are deployed in different regions of South Sudan—including in the north of the country, where strategic oil deposits and pipelines are situated. CNPC has greatly benefited from a 2018 peace deal, gaining access in July 2019 to the Munga oil field, which was previously inaccessible due to the country’s civil war (CNPC, August 6, 2019). According to Hua Ning (华宁), a Chinese ambassador to South Sudan, peacekeeping troops from China “help create a favorable environment as the warring parties implement key outstanding provisions within the revitalized peace deal” (Xinhua, September 19, 2019).

In a 2018 interview, Zhou Bo (周波), the director of the Security Cooperation Center of the Office of International Military Cooperation of the Ministry of Defense of China (中国国防部国际军事合作办公室安全合作中心, Zhongguo Guofangbu Guoji Junshi Hezuo Bangongshi Anquan Hezuo Zhongxin), asserted that China is a major peacekeeping power in Africa, and that its contribution helps maintain good relations between China and the African Union (China Radio International, May 19, 2018). According to Zhou, China’s peacekeeping missions benefit African countries directly, by deployment of Chinese military and civil personnel to the mission areas; and indirectly, by providing support and training to the forces of the African Union. For example, the PRC has previously provided military assistance to the soldiers in Burundi and Uganda to facilitate their peacekeeping missions in Somalia.

A persistent problem for the modern PLA is its comparative lack of real war experience. China’s participation in UNPKO has facilitated opportunities for multilateral cooperation with a variety of militaries, and allowed it to take part in military operations other than war (MOOTW), an important part of the PLA’s long-term reform goals. While peacekeeping operations do not provide the same experience of modern military conflict, they still can give the PLA some much-needed experience in combat, logistics, and multinational cooperation (China Brief, December 5, 2016).

From a narrative standpoint, successful peacekeeping efforts shore up China’s reputation as a major military power, lending support to Beijing’s increasingly nationalist rhetoric and “wolf warrior diplomacy” (战狼外交, zhanlang waijiao). [2] As recently expressed by Wang Yi (王毅), PRC State Councilor and Minister of Foreign Affairs: “[the] Chinese are principled and brave, and we will definitely fight back against the deliberate slander and firmly defend the country’s honor and national dignity” (People’s Daily, May 24).

He Yin, an associate professor at the China Peacekeeping Police Training Center at the Chinese People’s Police University (中国人民警察大学维和培训部, Zhongguo Renmin Jingcha Daxue Weihe Peixun Bu), notes that other countries may doubt China’s motives for participating in UNPKO. He asserts that the PRC faces a dilemma: if the country actively participates in international affairs, it will be criticized for challenging the world order; but if China remains passive, it will be criticized for not shouldering the duties of a responsible nation. He criticizes developed countries for their declining interest in peacekeeping and their reluctance to dispatch more troops for missions, leading to the inefficiency of peacekeeping operations. [3] He Yin argues that because of the inability of liberal Western countries to effectively build and maintain peace, non-Western countries should change the normative mechanism of peacekeeping (China Daily, September 26, 2019).

Conclusion

During the last decade, the PRC has increased its participation in UN peacekeeping. At the same time, it has built a military base in Djibouti, and actively developed its cooperation with African countries and the African Union. China has also expanded its foreign policy commitments abroad via Xi Jinping’s wide-ranging Belt and Road Initiative. As the United States has stepped back from actively supporting and funding international organizations, PRC commentators and official publications have called on China to increase its role in global peacekeeping. Peacekeeping operations represent one of many opportunities that China is seizing to increase its influence around the world, and particularly in Africa.

Nikita Savkov is an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk, Belarus. He holds a BA in Sinology from Belarusian State University, and a MA in International Business from Shandong University. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Shandong University of Finance and Economics (Jinan, China), where his dissertation research covers the impact of Chinese immigration into European countries on Sino-European trade relations. He may be contacted at: [email protected].

Notes

[1] Statistics about Chinese contribution to UN PKO is available at:https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/troop-and-police-contributors; and https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/china

[2] “Wolf warrior diplomacy” is a media term used to describe the pro-active style of Beijing’s foreign policy. The term originates from the title of the 2017 Chinese action movie “Wolf Warrior 2” (战狼2, Zhan Lang 2) that tells the story of a Chinese soldier who protects Chinese and locals during the conflict in Africa. The movie became widely popular in China, and it’s nationalistic style can be characterized by the slogan on its promotional poster, “Whoever offends China, no matter how far they are, will be executed” (犯我中华者, 虽远必诛). Another popular quote from the movie used in state media is “Chinese citizens, if you get into trouble while abroad, don’t give up! Remember that you have the powerful Motherland behind your back” (中华人民共和国公民:当你在海外遭遇危险,不要放弃!请记住,在你身后,有一个强大的祖国) (PLA, August 4, 2017).

[3] He’s comments are slightly disingenuous: Western analysts have noted that so-called “medium powers” such as Australia, Canada, and South Korea have tended to be more involved in international peacekeeping efforts than “great powers” such as the U.S. and Russia, who are less likely to remain neutral (or be viewed as such) when participating in international conflicts. As a result, these countries have been less inclined to participate directly in UNPKO outside of a supporting role. Countries such as the U.S. and Russia also have considerably more forces deployed for peacekeeping efforts as part of non-UN missions. See: USIP, September 2018.