During Xi Jinping’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, he surprised most observers when he pledged to setup a permanent Chinese peacekeeping force of 8,000 troops, as well as make substantial donations to the UN for peacekeeping duties. In his speech titled “China is Here for Peace,” Xi called for an improvement to the current peacekeeping system, more rapid responses to developing crises, and greater support for African nations. To this end, he outlined China’s commitments to global peacekeeping (FMPRC, September 28):
1. Establishment of a peacekeeping standby force of 8,000 troops
2. Favorable consideration for UN requests for Chinese engineers, logistics and medical staff
3. Training of 2,000 peacekeepers and establishment of 10 de-mining programs
4. $100 million pledged to improve the African Union’s crisis response forces
5. Deployment of helicopter units to support UN operations in Africa
6. Establishment of a China-UN peace and development fund used to support operations
Points two and three are continuations of existing Chinese efforts at supporting peacekeeping operations and part of China’s soft power efforts, while points four and five follow China’s tradition of assisting Africa and other developing nations, as well as contributing to stabilizing a continent that is increasingly important for Chinese investment. The pledge of helicopters is worthy of note as Chinese aircraft have hitherto not been deployed on UN operations. It is likely that the helicopters will be transport variants (such as the Mi-17/171 or Z-8) and not attack helicopters like the Ukrainian Mi-24s in the Congo.
China was slow to join UN peacekeeping missions, with the first deployment of observers (to UNTSO, the UN Truce Supervision Organization) only taking place in 1990, and the first deployment by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (to UNTAC, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia) in 1991. Since then, Chinese peacekeepers have joined UN missions around the world from Haiti to Lebanon. As of September 2015, China has a total of 3,040 personnel involved in various UN peacekeeping missions around the world, including 2,838 military personnel. 
Prior to this, Beijing had been wary of involvement with “UN forces,” having fought against a U.S.-led UN force during the Korean War. Its policies of non-interference and a general view of military deployments overseas as not something conducted by socialist nations meant that it did not immediately join peacekeeping missions even after being admitted into the UN in 1971.
Since the first major deployment as part of the Iraq-Kuwait Observer group in 1991, China’s troop contributions had risen dramatically. While it ranked 46th in terms total contributions (67th in terms of non-military personnel), it rose to 14th in 2014 (2,186 personnel, including 1,979 military). As of August of this year China ranks tenth in terms of total contributions. 
Despite this increase in numbers in recent years, China has limited its contributions in military personnel to engineering, logistical and medial troops. Indeed, peacekeeping achievements are recorded by the government in terms of the number of bridges built, lengths of roads paved and patients treated. In other words: quantifiable and tangible targets, much like a Chinese foreign direct investment project (Xinhua, April 19).
Under President Xi, however, there appears to have been a shift in perceptions regarding the potential benefits stemming from UN peacekeeping missions—for both China and the UN. This is part of the broader shake-up of the PLA under Xi’s leadership, which has seen senior officers removed from power for corruption, and attention paid to more realistic training as well as an “ability to win wars,” which in the West is perhaps better translated as “maintaining combat readiness” (PLA Daily, January 17; People’s Daily, August 27, 2014).
The PLA is rather unique in that it is the only “Great Power” military force not to have engaged in conflict since the beginning of the 21st century. By contrast, NATO member-nations have been involved in the War on Terror since 2001, and Russia is actively redrawing the map of Eastern Europe. Aircraft from all of these nations crisscross the skies over Syria and drones continue to hunt for targets in the mountains of Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the 2.3 million-strong PLA has not fired a shot in anger in a conventional conflict since the border skirmishes with Vietnam in the 1980s, and not engaged in a full-scale conflict since 1979, again with Vietnam. Much of the past 30 years have been spent on various modernization programs that aimed to build a force that can “win under informatized conditions” (PLA News, May 26). The reforms first focused on acquiring more advanced technology, motivated by the demonstration of U.S. conventional power in the deserts of Kuwait during the first Gulf War, followed by attempts to streamline the force.
However, military research, and development has been hampered by an arms embargo by the West, as well as a lack of trained personnel that can effectively man the new platforms. Political intrigue and byzantine networks of patronage has grounded force structure reforms for the past decade. All of these have contributed to the PLA being perceived as a force that looked good on paper but is questionable in terms of actual combat abilities.
Gulf of Aden
One of the key components of modern military operations is the ability to rapidly deploy one’s forces to a flashpoint. Western military reforms, gaining from extensive experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been to do away with heavy armored formations of the Cold War and replace them with light, modular and extremely mobile formations in either regimental or brigade size.
However, while Western forces have had opportunities to test themselves in practice, this has not been an option for the PLA, which has to content itself with moving forces within China. While occasional exercises with neighboring countries have been beneficial, these have not been large nor sophisticated enough to fully accumulate institutional knowledge in modern combat operations.
The first opportunity for the PLA to deploy abroad in a meaningful way came in 2008 when China announced that it would send a naval flotilla to the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden (People’s Net, December 26, 2008). Six years and 21 flotillas later, what was an effort to protect a vital shipping route for global trade, has turned into the best joint operations exercise for the modernized People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) that it could have wished for (China Brief, May 1).
During these deployments, often involving large surface warfare as well as amphibious assault ships, the PLA navy tested its ability to operate both at range and for long durations. The experience has not only been invaluable for China’s naval development, but it was also welcomed by the international community. China realized that a UN mandate can legitimate Chinese deployment of combat personnel abroad, as well as offer opportunities for Chinese officers to learn from other militaries up-close. Exchanges between Chinese personnel and other participating forces can also act as confidence-building measures, helping to chip away at fears of China’s military rise.
Xi’s Blue Helmets
Xi Jinping, who has done much to push PLA modernization forward, is now taking Chinese peacekeeping into a new age. In 2014, the first combat troops, an infantry battalion of 700 men and women, was dispatched to South Sudan, arguably paving the way for Xi’s recent announcement of a permanent force of around brigade size (People’s Net, December 25, 2014). The light mechanized battalion of three infantry companies, one support company and battalion HQ was equipped with the latest equipment and drawn from the Jinan Military Region, a region well known for its innovation in rapid response and light mechanized units.
The future force, if the plan goes ahead, will almost certainly consist of the best and most mobile of China’s ground forces. It will also likely to contain all the fruits of its military reforms in hardware, training, and structural experimentation. The PLA has tested “combined battalions,” modular forces that consist of units from several arms similar to a battalion battlegroup in NATO forces (QQNews, 2013). These have been tested in new realistic training programs (another innovation introduced under Xi), as well as during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) annual “Peace Mission” exercises alongside Russian and other Central Asia forces (JMB News, 2014)
The new generation of PLA hardware, such as the infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers seen during the 70th Victory Day Parade in September 2015, are geared toward rapid deployment, interchangeability and firepower. In other words, the PLA technically possesses all the components it requires to field a rapid reaction force on combat missions. UN peacekeeping operations, much like the Gulf of Aden patrols, will be the best platform for additional training and testing of doctrine.
Another aspect of Chinese willingness to deploy combat forces abroad is the need to be able to protect the lives and property of Chinese personnel overseas. As Chinese investment abroad increases every year, overseas Chinese have found themselves caught up in conflicts which has required Beijing to expend substantial resources to extract them.
Since the much reported evacuation of Chinese nationals during the Libyan Civil War in 2011, China has also evacuated thousands of its citizens from both South Sudan and Yemen in 2015 (Xinhua, March 30). These operations demonstrated a nascent ability to deploy maritime and aerial transport, but also highlighted their limitations. This was especially in the case with the Libyan evacuation, when a Chinese Il-76 (an aircraft that is in short supply in China) had to fly in from South Sudan (Sina, March 2, 2011).
As China rises, it will inevitably be faced with both shouldering the responsibilities of a great power and the need to protect its citizens abroad. In order to these challenges, the Chinese military must better acquaint itself with the ability to operate in hostile and unfamiliar environments, joint command and control of diverse units and cooperating operationally with foreign forces. UN peacekeeping operations will allow Chinese forces to gain all of these.
This willingness to learn was further demonstrated when, during Xi Jinping’s trip to the United Kingdom in October, the two countries agreed on three bilateral defense programs, two of which were on “Examining the Establishment of Sino-UK International Peacekeeping Collaboration Framework” and “2016 Sino-UK Exercise on Expatriate Evacuation” (People’s Daily, October 23).  This affords a great opportunity for the Chinese to learn from a military that has extensive experience in peacekeeping in hostile environments as well as learning from the Royal Navy on how to conduct large evacuation operations.
Although it might not be a surprise that the current largest concentration of Chinese military personnel is with the UNMISS in South Sudan, where China has considerable energy interests, Chinese blue helmets are also deployed in large numbers in Lebanon, Liberia and Mali, where they do not have clear-cut economic interests. Characterization of China’s future peacekeeping operations purely as attempts to protect Chinese overseas interests with military forces are therefore unwarranted.
Chinese blue helmets will likely be just as risk adverse as the PLA always have been, with unnecessary losses seen as potential career ending disasters for officers in charge, and any local civilian fatalities posing considerable reputational risks for China as a nation. Nevertheless the Chinese contingent will no doubt be a welcome addition to UN peacekeeping operations, as the discipline and efficiency of the current troop contingents have frequently been complimented by the UN (81.com, June 25).
As the 8,000 strong Chinese “UN Brigade” comes into being over the coming years, the world will no doubt focus its attention on its full or partial deployment around the world. It will inevitably come into contact with foreign forces, including those from the West. This will be a golden opportunity for both sides to learn from each other, build stronger trust, as well as allow China to demonstrate itself as a responsible great power. The stakes are high, and Xi Jinping will be potentially gambling with the reputation of the Chinese military and nation. Potential returns will include invaluable lessons for the PLA in overseas deployment, as well as the chance to learn from other, more experienced militaries from around the world.
Gary Li is an Associate Consultant at APCO Worldwide. He previously worked as an East Asia security analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London and IHS in Beijing. He has seven years’ experience in analyzing and advising on Chinese security issues for a variety of public and private sector entities.
1. China’s Participation in UN Peacekeeping Operations (1990–2008).
2. Troop and Police Contributions, United Nations Peacekeeping.
3. The United Kingdom in particular is keen to “guide” China on its rise as a military power and how to avoid conflict with others. The British military arguably has the longest institutional experience in executing global responsibilities from its time as an Imperial power. However, unlike the U.S., the UK is not directly engaged in strategic rivalry with China.