Peacekeeping with Chinese Characteristics?

Details of the uniforms of the Chinese infantry battalion deployed to South Sudan. Juba, February 27, 2015. (JC McIlwaine/UN Photo)

If reported plans come to fruition, China heading up the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) would represent one of its most significant overtures toward leading, rather than merely participating in, the post-1945 global order. Even a less substantial DPKO appointment, such as filling the department’s Military Adviser role—which some UN officials consider a more attainable short-term goal—would break from recent strategy: After successfully integrating into largely Washington-engineered structures over several decades, Beijing has increasingly focused on creating separate “shadow” institutions in which it plays a commanding role.

While there is no real option of establishing a parallel peacekeeping force outside the UN’s aegis, the question of why the country’s leaders have any interest at all in heading up DPKO is a valid one. It is something that has already been asked of growing Chinese contributions to the nuts and bolts activities of peacekeeping itself. These too seem at odds with a long-established aversion to interventionism, which has otherwise grown in light of chastening experiences such as consenting to limited stabilizing action in Libya in 2011, only to see it metastasize into NATO-led regime change against Muammar Gaddafi.

Regardless, China remains the second-largest financial contributor to the 2016 UN peacekeeping budget, fronting about 10% of costs, compared with 28% from the US. And, unlike the US—and the remaining Security Council permanent members—it is also a significant contributor of peacekeeping personnel. There were 2,436 Chinese troops on UN duty as of August this year, in addition to more than 100 police and military experts. Missions in Mali and South Sudan have increasingly introduced these individuals into combat roles. Chinese President Xi Jinping also pledged an additional 8,000-troop commitment to a new UN standby force at a September 2015 summit hosted by US President Barack Obama.

These types of developments have long given hope to those observers in Washington and the international community in New York who wish to see China make a more noticeable contribution to global peace and security, in line with its growing role elsewhere. Xi himself seemed to draw the link when announcing last year’s major peacekeeping resources, calling them part of a “new partnership of win-win cooperation and a community of shared future for mankind.”

Yet Western praise of these activities seems to be most frequently dragged out as a benevolent Jekyll to China’s more unilateralist, obligation-shunning Hyde; after the July rejection of the ruling of an international tribunal in The Hague invalidated China’s claims of territorial and maritime rights over the South China Sea, for example.

There is, then, an alternative view: that China’s peacekeeping commitments represent no more than a pragmatic extension of its desire to shore up access to resources and project power farther and wider as its interests move increasingly offshore. The US Department of Defense’s 2016 briefing to Congress on China notes “various objectives” for its peacekeeping commitments, including improving its international image, obtaining operational experience for the People’s Liberation Army, and increasing intelligence-gathering opportunities.

Beijing has itself highlighted its desire to expand African peacekeeping as a principal motivation for the new defense facilities it is constructing in Djibouti. While many in Washington consider these to be China’s first US-style overseas military base, they are defended as protecting “economic interests in Africa and to help safeguard regional peace” by the likes of Shanghai academic Li Weijian, who also point to the need to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa.

The ambiguous nature of China’s overall relationship with peacekeeping is best observed in South Sudan, where roughly half its peacekeeping troops are currently stationed with the UN mission (UNMISS) and where the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation is the biggest investor in the oil industry. While this would suggest a naked national interest in ensuring stability, Chinese actions have not always been in service of these aims. There is, for example, solid evidence of Beijing sustaining the conflict by arming its combatants.

China’s level of commitment to UNMISS objectives—and thus the general principles it would be expected to uphold in a DPKO leadership role—has also been called into question. In a report from earlier this month, the Washington-based Center for Civilians in Conflict accused Chinese and Ethiopian members of the mission of refusing to send a quick reaction force to a hotel compound where Sudan People’s Liberation Army soldiers had raped five aid workers, killed a local journalist, and assaulted dozens of others. Chinese troops were also accused of abandoning the UNMISS “protection of civilians” site and those housed there. Any risk-averse nature among Chinese peacekeepers—which participants in the UN mission in Mali have also noted—could be a function of a lack of experience in such matters. In South Sudan there is also likely a desire to avoid angering local powerbrokers. Either way, Ministry of Defense spokesperson Yang Yujun labelled accusations against Chinese troops “malicious speculation.”

The supposed dereliction of UNMISS duty followed shortly after the July killing of two Chinese troops in the mission. Those deaths reportedly angered many social media users back home, who rejected their government’s offering of condemnation without a firm commitment to retribution. Given Beijing’s concerns for domestic legitimacy, there seems a very real risk of further peacekeeping complications placing a brake on future commitments. This will only increase if the climate of slowing domestic growth leads to a heavy economic crash, as outside observers such as investor George Soros and academic David Shambaugh predict in the absence of major structural or political reform.

Though smaller in scale, China’s South Sudan experiences call to mind those of the US after the much-publicized “Black Hawk down” incident of 1993. Here, shockwaves from the killing of 18 Americans serving alongside the UN’s Somalia mission led to an abrupt shift in Washington policy, to significantly scale back peacekeeping contributions in subsequent years. Just 34 Americans were serving in UN peace operations around the world as of August.

A similar Chinese retreat from the frontlines seems unlikely in the current culture of rising resource contributions. The designs on heading up DPKO may, however, provide an opportunity for long-term recalibration of Beijing’s strategy, allowing it to maintain a new sphere of influence, while sacrificing more treasure perhaps, but less in the way of blood. The US has certainly maintained a strong input into the nature of UN peacekeeping through continued funding commitments and its presence in the so-called P-3 alliance with the United Kingdom and France. These countries serve as “penholders” responsible for drafting the vast majority of Security Council resolutions and hence for setting and renewing peace operation mandates. Breaking up this cosy relationship would be another avenue through which Beijing might gain more influence, though it would be starting from a very low, virtually nonexistent, base in this respect.

The continuing American influence on peacekeeping is, meanwhile, perhaps only exceeded by that of France. French nationals have headed DPKO since 1996, after Paris was rumored to have included the appointment as a condition of not vetoing Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s appointment. Echoing the American record, France’s once considerable troop contributions have generally fallen during the intervening years, while its contributions to shaping peacekeeping policy and directions have increased.

Also similar to the US, French policymakers have continued to pursue national (as in Mali and the Central African Republic) or multinational (as in Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) foreign interventions, working in parallel with the UN. Their penholding presence has, meanwhile, allowed them to either use peacekeeping as an opportunity to “multilateralize” foreign policy objectives in francophone Africa, as in the short-lived MINURCAT intervention of 2008-2010 in Chad and CAR, or pursue exit strategies for standalone military operations, as with the UN missions in Mali and CAR, which came on the heals of France’s Operations Serval and Sangaris, in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

Should a Chinese official replace current peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous—whose contract runs out in February next year—or take some other major DPKO role, it may result in significant conflicts for its own government and others at the UN regarding how its growing contributions of personnel and resources are deployed. Even if Beijing were to follow more of a Washington or Paris model and pull back from the frontlines, it would likely still cause headaches for many of those voices calling for a greater Chinese involvement in maintaining international order.

Complicating matters most is the fact that Beijing’s growing interest comes at a time of major soul-searching and reform-seeking for peace operations in response to challenges posed by the highly complicated nature of contemporary conflict. George Washington University peacekeeping expert Paul D. Williams has outlined five key challenges that incoming Secretary-General António Guterres—and, by extension, the next DPKO chief—must address in this regard: prioritizing political solutions to conflicts; reassessing the fitness of basic peacekeeping principles; improving UN “force generation” capabilities; identifying and assessing performance standards; and ensuring peacekeeper accountability for misconduct.

Under normal circumstances, a break in the leadership continuum might be considered a major advantage for kick-starting this process of change. Yet Beijing’s relative lack of concern for human rights is expected to be among a number of complications it will bring to any peacekeeping platform it may lead. These threats are amplified by the shallow divide between the Communist Party leadership and bureaucracy, which means that the ability for Beijing to influence New York seems much higher than does the reverse arrangement.

Despite the tendency toward pessimism, there are nonetheless some areas in which Chinese foreign policy traditions might advance the stated aims of UN reformers. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s address to this year’s General Assembly stressed that “political solution is the fundamental way out” of conflict and that “history has shown once and again to repress violence with force can only lead to more hatred.” This is firmly in keeping with the first challenge Williams identifies, of peace operations maintaining “the primacy of politics,” as it was termed in a high-profile 2015 review.

The major obstacle to this may be that Beijing typically sees political solutions of this nature as necessarily dominated by state authorities and, commensurate with its own rising strength, increasingly dependent on the agency of great powers. This was clearly evident in its rejection of the jurisdiction of the tribunal assessing its South China Sea activities and even in its more outwardly benign recent activities, such as placing a guiding hand on peace negotiations in the likes of Myanmar and Afghanistan. Returning to Williams’ third challenge, for the UN to develop “as wide a consensus as possible” on the fitness of basic peace operation principles, a louder Chinese voice could move the reform debate in directions not yet seen, or perhaps even contemplated, particularly given Beijing’s influence with the Group of 77 bloc of developing nations.

Once again, there is a more sanguine alternative that defenders of the established international order may wish to promote and pursue. Jim Della-Giacoma of the Center on International Cooperation, for one, told me that the deeper China gets involved in peacekeeping, the more its policymakers will have to confront, and potentially accept, ideas that are now antithetical to established means of operating. These include the still emerging “protection of civilians” mandate at play in South Sudan, which tasks UN forces with preventing violence against civilians in conflict zones. Greater Chinese experience, and possible leadership, of UN peacekeeping is sure to involve further culture shocks; what remains to be seen is which side is willing to absorb the most.

Correction: an earlier version of this article misattributed the July violence in South Sudan to rebels aligned with South Sudan opposition leader Riek Machar.