Earlier this month, Albert Gerard Koenders, the UN Special Representative for Mali, praised China for the contributions its peacekeeping forces made in helping to ensure a smooth presidential election in Mali last month.
“The UN Secretary-General said that China and its peacekeeping role in Mali were very important, but now I would have to say, China's important work has exceeded expectations,” Koenders said at the time.
The mission to Mali represented a major shift in China’s peacekeeping operations. Specifically, whereas early missions had involved only logistical and medical personnel, in Mali China dispatched actual security forces to help maintain the peace. As Chen Jian, the head of the UN Association of China, told The Financial Times at the beginning of the mission, “This is a major breakthrough in our participation in peacekeeping.”
China has long faced criticism from the international community over its peacekeeping operations. Although China has stepped up its participation in peacekeeping missions since 2002, the international community has continued to demand more from Beijing in terms of peacekeeping. For instance, when visiting China in 2007, the (now former) UN Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, expressed his desire to see more Chinese involvement in peacekeeping efforts.
But considering China’s low-profile diplomatic policy and the impact of the “China threat” theory in recent years, China has to handle this issue delicately. Besides adhering to the two principles underpinning traditional peacekeeping operations—gaining the consent of the host country and using force only in self-defense— China has been keen to gain the support of regional organizations before it will participate in its peacekeeping missions. Domestic politics have also hindered the role China plays in peacekeeping. For instance, the Foreign and Defense Ministries have often been at odds in defining China’s proper international role. Whereas the Foreign Ministry places a high level of importance on improving China’s image on the world stage, the Defense Ministry has been less interested in whether the rest of the world sees China as being a “responsible stakeholder,” as some have termed it.
But China has become more flexible in its peacekeeping role as a result of it taking broader view of its security interests. In China today, for instance, more and more people are aware of the importance of the country’s participation in peacekeeping missions. Deploying China’s first-ever security peacekeeping forces to Mali nicely illustrates China’s newfound adaptability, and it has likely set a precedent that will be heeded in future missions.
So far, more than 2,000 Chinese peacekeepers have been in peacekeeping operations in nine different mission zones. China has also provided the most peacekeepers among all permanent members of the UN Security Council, and will soon be the sixth largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget. According to the Permanent Mission of the PRC to the UN, China’s contribution to the UN peacekeeping budget will increase from just over 3 percent of the total budget today, to more than 6 percent by 2015.
While Chinese peacekeepers have a positive influence on China’s international image, many believe that Beijing can get more “bang for its buck” when participating in peacekeeping missions. For example, Zhang Huiyu, one of China’s foremost experts on peacekeeping, argues that China’s peacekeeping program should focus not only on increasing the quantity of its contributions, but also on improving the quality as well. To do this Zhang Huiyu argues China should not only participate as an ordinary participant, but also help shape the nature of how and what peacekeeping missions are performed by the international community.
It’s a good bet that China’s peacekeeping role will increasingly assume the template that the professor outlines.
Colleen Wong is a Beijing-based columnist for China Power.