China’s Growing Role in UN Peacekeeping
China’s Growing Role in UN Peacekeeping
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 166 / Asia 3 minutes

China’s Growing Role in UN Peacekeeping

Over the past twenty years China has become an active participant in UN peacekeeping, a development that will benefit the international community.

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Executive Summary

Over the past twenty years China has become an active participant in UN peacekeeping, a development that will benefit the international community. Beijing has the capacity to expand its contributions further and should be encouraged to do so. China’s approach to peacekeeping has evolved considerably since it assumed its UN Security Council (UNSC) seat in 1971, when it rejected the entire concept of peacekeeping. Now, with over 2,000 peacekeepers serving in ten UN peacekeeping operations worldwide, China’s motivations for supporting and participating in peacekeeping have led it to adopt a case-by-case approach that balances those motivations against its traditional adherence to non-intervention. This pragmatic policy shift paves the way for China to provide much-needed personnel as well as political support and momentum for peacekeeping at a time when both conflicts and peacekeeping operations are becoming more complex. China’s involvement also further binds it to the international system.

Demand for blue helmets far outpaces supply, and shows no sign of abating. Concurrent to the sharp increase in peacekeeping missions since the end of the Cold War, Western countries have been withdrawing or reducing their commitments. While continuing to provide robust financial support to UN peacekeeping, they send far fewer personnel. Although China’s financial support for peacekeeping remains modest, it is now the second largest provider of peacekeepers among the five permanent members of the UNSC. While it does not currently provide combat troops, its provision of civilian police, military observers, engineering battalions and medical units fills a key gap and is important to the viability and success of UN peacekeeping operations.

China’s increasing role reflects changed foreign policy priorities as well as pragmatic considerations. Multilateralism has become central to China’s efforts to project its influence abroad, pursue its interests and cultivate its image as a “responsible great power”. Participation in peacekeeping serves these ends as a relatively low-cost way of demonstrating commitment to the UN and to international peace and security. It has also served to counter fears of China’s growing power – the “China threat” – by deploying military personnel for peaceful ends.

While China’s expanded role in peacekeeping is welcomed by the UN and many countries, there are some concerns. China’s support for problem regimes in the developing world has fed suspicions that Chinese peacekeeping is primarily motivated by economic interests. In fact, China’s economic and peacekeeping decision-making tracks operate separately, and tensions between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), military and economic actors ensure that there is still no overall strategic approach to peacekeeping. Another concern is that in several cases, China has sent peacekeepers only after giving support to actors that aggravated the situation. While true of all major powers, meaningful political support for peacekeeping should involve a more strategic approach to promoting stability earlier on.

At the same time, China’s relationships with difficult regimes may well benefit UN peacekeeping efforts. China can bring to the table valuable political capital and economic leverage, in some cases even encouraging host countries to consent to peacekeeping operations, as seen in Sudan. The exposure China gains to conflict situations and to UN working methods through peacekeeping operations is also likely to encourage it to become more active in conflict resolution in the future.

Beijing is cautiously considering calls by the UN and many Western countries, including the U.S., UK, Canada, Norway, France and Sweden, to increase its contribution to peacekeeping. While China benefits from its involvement in peacekeeping, particularly in terms of helping its military and police professionalise, train and gain valuable field experience, there are several constraints on its capacity to do more. Although willing to shoulder more of the responsibilities for international peace and security, it worries about overstepping the boundary between responsible and threatening. There are also practical difficulties in training personnel, particularly in the necessary language skills. A further limitation is the division along different branches of the Chinese government on the issue of peacekeeping and the extent of Chinese engagement.

Overall, China’s growing role is helping to fill the growing shortfall in capacity and resources. The lack of available and qualified police for peacekeeping is one area in which China is already making a significant contribution. As a low-cost and effective means of contributing to international peace and stability, China should be encouraged to continue increasing its participation in peacekeeping, and the UN and Western countries should continue to provide support to and encourage China in its peacekeeping efforts.

Beijing/New York/Brussels, 17 April 2009

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