The Future of China’s Overseas Peacekeeping Operations

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 6

Since 1990, China has contributed about 7,500 peacekeepers to United Nations peacekeeping operations (UNPKOs), according to the Peacekeeping Affairs Office of the Ministry of Defense in Beijing (China Daily, July 24, 2007). In early 2008, 1,963 Chinese peacekeepers were serving on UN missions in countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Lebanon and Sudan. The number of Chinese peacekeepers worldwide, however, is much smaller than the number that Pakistan supplies the United Nations—currently 10,594—or Bangladesh, which has 9,853 participating in many of the UN’s 22 missions worldwide.

China currently contributes the most personnel to UNPKOs of the UN Security Council’s Permanent Members. As of January 2008, China is committing 1,963 military and police individuals in UN operations, France is committing 1,803; the United Kingdom 366; the United States 320; and Russia 291. Wang Guangya, China’s ambassador to the UN, stated, “The major powers are withdrawing from the peacekeeping role … That role is being played more by small countries. China felt it is the right time for us to fill this vacuum. We want to play our role” (Washington Post, November 26, 2006). The other Permanent Members do pay much more of the UN peacekeeping budget—Beijing currently only contributes 2.67 percent of the general UN and PKO budget—although this represents a 168 percent increase in Chinese contributions since 2000—but the other countries refrain from committing much of their own troops on the ground in these missions, largely because of a general distrust of the UN’s command structures within UNPKO frameworks.

There are, however, ambiguities and contradictions in Beijing’s involvement in peacekeeping operations that could only be understood by China’s stance on state sovereignty and intervention. Given the remarkable surge of UN peacekeeping efforts in the post-Cold War era, which has focused more on addressing internal political situations, this feature of modern peacekeeping operations has found China in a difficult position of trying to reconcile between its principle of non-interference and simultaneously, its increasing global responsibility. Additionally, considering why China’s position on peace operations has moved forward and how Beijing is taking on a greater share of such operations—particularly in Africa—is of vital interest to understanding China’s broader foreign policy objectives.

With Power Comes Responsibility

One way in which China is projecting itself as a “responsible great power” (fuzeren de daguo) and playing a positive role to international peace hinges on Beijing’s increasing involvement and contribution to UN peace operations. Beijing was highly skeptical of the United Nations’ peacekeeping efforts at first, primarily because the Chinese leadership saw how the UN was utilized for the Korean War to legitimize and sanction what was seen by China as an aggressive military intervention. In addition, being outside of the UN for many years and thus incapable of having any influence, China’s position on peace operations was understandably suspicious. After all, for a country that was subjected to repeated interference and invasion by the Great Powers throughout the 19th century, intervention in any form is viewed with deep distrust. Consequently, even after Beijing took up its UN seat, the position on peace operations remained guarded and China refused to contribute to peacekeeping budgets for many years. However, in recent years, there has been a real sea change in China’s attitude to peace operations and Beijing has emerged as a significant contributor. Since the first dispatch of five military observers in 1990 to the United Nations’ Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in the Middle East, Beijing has contributed—as noted above—about 7,500 peacekeepers to 22 UNPKOs, which is more than the other five permanent members combined.

As the Chinese economy has exponentially expanded and China’s international trade profile has increased throughout the globe, expectations of Beijing to play a greater role in international relations has become axiomatic. Furthermore, domestic considerations about security at home means that Beijing has increasingly realized that PKOs can aid in securing a peaceful global environment, which is in China’s national interest given that it needs a stable external market for its goals of economic growth and development.

Additionally, with the increased profile, particularly in Africa, criticism of China has led policymakers to counteract the negative assessments of its foreign policies. Acutely aware of its global image and reputation, taking part in peace operations is one way for China to project a more benign and positive impression. As Dai Shao’an, vice-director of the Peacekeeping Affairs Office of the Ministry of Defense, put it, “Wherever they go or whatever they do, [Chinese peacekeepers] always bear in mind that they are messengers of peace, representing China … To win hearts and minds, you need to devote your own hearts and minds, and that is exactly what our peacekeepers are doing” (China Daily, July 24, 2007). Two peacekeeping personnel training facilities now exist in China—one in Nanjing in Jiangsu province and the other in Langfang, in Hebei, reflecting Beijing’s now permanent commitment to peace operations. In August 2007, it was announced that Major-General Zhao Jingmin would be appointed as the new Force Commander for the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO), the first time that the UN has had a Chinese national head one of its missions.

The Sovereignty Dilemma

Beijing’s involvement in peace operations in the future is likely to grow, as Beijing feels more comfortable with such missions. This will always be connected to China’s position on state sovereignty. Where the defense of Chinese sovereignty encounters the necessity of playing a greater role in the world will mark out the limits of China’s involvement. Beijing will increasingly have to contend with the impulses generated by a rising China and expectations of it to play a greater and greater role in international affairs and the goal of seeking to control any evolution in the definition of sovereignty, which threatens to be outside of China’s control. Managing the debate and delimiting discussions of what sovereignty is and when it might be transgressed is central to Beijing’s position on intervention and peacekeeping.

Beijing has shifted its foreign policy to one that is arguably more far-reaching and global and that permits limited peace operations. This has been underpinned by an evolving list of four official guidelines on legitimate intervention [1]. For these to be satisfied, intervention must first proceed with respect for the concerned state’s sovereignty. Secondly, United Nations’ authorization must be gained. Thirdly, the invitation of the concerned state must be secured. Finally, force should only ever be used when all other possible options have proven ineffective. This set of necessary conditions demonstrates that there has been movement in Beijing from a previous hard stand on state sovereignty and non-interference. China’s policies have certainly developed from hesitant contributions to expanded participation. Where one might contest this stance of China is in the insistence that the consent of the hosting state is required in every occasion. This is potentially problematic given the nature of the state in a number of countries where peacekeeping is most needed. However, China’s policies are constantly evolving and how Beijing manages its future participation in peace operations will be of significant importance. It appears that China’s emerging role in peacekeeping operation is part of a pragmatic reorientation and reassessment of Beijing’s political interests by policymakers, who are now more concerned with looking like a responsible great power and less of a developing country bent on protecting state sovereignty at all costs.

Permissible Intervention?

There are certain limitations to these developments, however. China still resolutely opposes actions perceived as interfering in the domestic affairs of other states and will only agree to a peace operation if the host government concurs. There is still a suspicion in Beijing that interventions carried out in the name of “humanitarianism” have been motivated by interests other than charity or international solidarity and that the United States in particular tries to utilize the UN as a means to project its own national interests and policies. Thus, China is likely to remain skeptical about certain calls for action and closely interrogate the claims made when the UN advances demands for intervention. Actions perceived as interfering in the internal affairs of other states remain resolutely opposed by the Chinese in their foreign policy and Beijing will only assent to—let alone take part in—a peace operation if the host sovereign government agrees, however weak this may actually be in practice. In sum, China’s stance on peacekeeping operations is linked to its position on state sovereignty and the implications this has for permissible interventions. Such a reality has important implications for China’s involvement in peace operations and has at times—Darfur being the most recent and graphic example—had unfortunate effects for ordinary peoples, where initial attempts by Beijing to protect Khartoum arguably led to a prolongation of the conflict.

The Chinese view of sovereignty and intervention is not fixed and has evolved over time. Chinese membership of the WTO, for example, arguably reflects a noteworthy change in Beijing’s conception of Chinese sovereignty as well as greater integration into global norms. Control of the debate and defining sovereignty in their own terms and in ways that protect Chinese interests might be seen as key to China’s stance on intervention and, by extension, peacekeeping. While China has moved away from the negative position of refuting any and all peace operations to a more responsible point of view that allows limited peace operations, this always has to be conducted with the explicit permission of the recipient or hosting state. Given the parlous nature of the state in many African territories this is arguably problematic. Yet the growing involvement by Beijing in UNPKOs is a further manifestation of China’s growing role as a world power and one that is, slowly but surely, integrating itself into some of international society’s broader norms.


1. Carlson, A. “Helping to Keep the Peace (Albeit Reluctantly): China’s Recent Stance on Sovereignty and Multilateral Intervention,” Pacific Affairs, vol. 77, no. 1.