This year marks 25 years since China and Japan sent their first military contingents on a United Nations peacekeeping mission. In 1992, Beijing and Tokyo’s deployment of engineering units to the UN’s mission in Cambodia was an initial step in East Asia’s peacekeeping engagement. Since then, both countries have become important contributors of so-called “enabler” troops — engineers, logisticians, and medical personnel — to missions in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. China in particular has significantly stepped up its engagement over the past 15 years and now ranks among the world’s top 12 contributors of blue helmets. While Japan has recently withdrawn its only peacekeeping contingent from South Sudan, it is alongside China and the United States among the three largest financial contributors to the peacekeeping budget.
However, the firm commitment of China and Japan to UN peacekeeping is increasingly at odds with the trends towards more ambitious UN Security Council mandates, and the growing deployment of peacekeepers into high-risk environments. Both countries have expressed concern that peacekeeping should be based on realistic expectations, and close adherence to core peacekeeping principles. At a time when financial cutbacks are driving reviews of major peacekeeping operations across the globe, and when there is a risk of dwindling commitments by key UN donors, the impact of these trends on Japan’s and China’s respective roles in peacekeeping needs further reflection.
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Over the past decade, UN peacekeeping has been asked to deploy in increasingly difficult circumstances — often where there is no peace to keep — where missions are not only mandated to engage in robust military and policing activities, but also to engage in a broader array of state-building and stabilization activities. This includes the use of force to fight back spoilers and deter attempts to disrupt political processes as well as protecting civilians under imminent threat of physical attack. Robust peacekeeping reached an apex in the mandate of the Force Intervention Brigade that is part of the UN’s blue helmet operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but robust mandates are also applied in Mali, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Darfur.
The trend toward robust peacekeeping is viewed with concern, as it runs counter to China’s and Japan’s strong attachment to the traditional peacekeeping principles, which call for UN missions to be impartial and have the consent of the host country, and which limit the use of force to self-defense. These principles are often hard to reconcile with offensive operations against civil war parties, especially where government forces are party to a conflict, or a risk to civilians. Many of the more risk–averse countries contributing troops to UN peacekeeping operations are wary of seeing their soldiers being sent into the line of fire in the pursuit of such robust mandates.
Despite these concerns, in recent years China has shown remarkable flexibility in practice, committing to form an 8,000-strong peacekeeping force, pledging to donate $1 billion to a UN peace and development fund, and even agreeing to send infantry battalions to missions in Mali and South Sudan, mandates which feature enforcement elements. But there remains concern in China that peacekeeping missions may be overreaching both politically and militarily, and impinging on state sovereignty in the process. Tellingly, Beijing has chosen to call its recent contributions of combat troops as “comprehensive security forces” instead.
In Japan, participation in robust missions has long been constrained by the country’s deeply engrained pacifist ethos and its 1992 peacekeeping law, which states that the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) may only participate in UN peacekeeping operations when a ceasefire is in place, host country consent has been obtained, operations are impartial, and the use of force is limited to self-defense. Although Japan has deployed over 10,000 personnel cumulatively to peacekeeping missions since the passage of the law, these principles have combined with constitutional restrictions to prevent Japanese forces from operating on the front lines of missions and to limit them to non-combat activities. While a revised peacekeeping law adopted in the autumn of 2015 loosened the more excessive restrictions, it provided a somewhat shaky legal basis for Japan’s participation in the UN’s peacekeeping mission South Sudan (UNMISS). The outbreak of civil war in December 2013 led to the mission’s greater focus on the robust protection of civilians mandate and increased the risk to peacekeepers, eventually prompting Japan to pull out from UNMISS in the first half of 2017. With most of the major peacekeeping activity taking place far from Japan’s shores — and far more immediate security concerns just across the Sea of Japan — public support for robust peacekeeping is low.
The growth of peacekeeping mandates to include state-building and stabilization has also had an impact on Japanese and Chinese perceptions. In addition to security functions, blue helmets are now regularly tasked with supporting security sector reform and good governance; carrying out electoral assistance; promoting human rights and democracy; assisting national authorities in maintaining law and order; helping with the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of combatants; and promoting national dialogue and reconciliation. While the broadening of mandates reflects a deepened sensitivity in the Security Council toward the multifaceted nature of the root causes of conflict and the need for comprehensive political and socioeconomic approaches toward peacebuilding, it has also given rise, including in Tokyo and Beijing, to concerns about a growing gap between mission tasks and what realistically could be achieved.
China, in particular, has been trying to curb human rights-related activities of peacekeepers, arguing that they undermine its cherished principle of noninterference in the domestic affairs of foreign countries and excessively impinge on state sovereignty. A related concern is that the high expectations created by large, multidimensional missions may outstrip the capacities of the peacekeepers on the ground, something of particular concern to Beijing as a relative newcomer to peacekeeping. China’s leadership role has grown in recent years — including commander positions in Western Sahara, Cyprus, and South Sudan — and there was discussion in New York about the possibility of a Chinese national being appointed as head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. As of now, however, the French hold on the position appears secure.
Both Tokyo and Beijing also view with concern the ballooning peacekeeping budget. Last year’s UN peace operations budget of $8 billion may be relatively cheap compared to some nationally-led military interventions, but not if it fails to produce commensurate results. In China, President Xi Jinping’s foreign aid largesse, especially that directed toward the UN, is coming under increasing domestic criticism. In line with the broader discussions of permanent five members of the Security Council in New York, Chinese experts have questioned the cost effectiveness of peacekeeping operations, arguing that the larger missions should not continue in their present state without clear exit strategies. Meanwhile, Japanese observers find it increasingly difficult to assess what gains come out of acting as a major financier of peacekeeping at a time of prolonged economic stagnation and strained budgets, leading to recurrent Japanese calls, in the Security Council, for timely drawdowns (“right-sizing”) and closures of UN missions and other cost-cutting measures.
Despite these concerns over the trajectory of UN peacekeeping, a number of factors may encourage China’s continued engagement and Japan’s reengagement in peacekeeping. Beijing sees peacekeeping as a means to demonstrate it is acting as a responsible stakeholder on international peace and security and to enhance its status as a global power. More pragmatically, in supporting stability in Africa, where the bulk of UN blue helmets are deployed, China is also helping to protect its growing trade and investment on the continent.
In Tokyo, too, remaining an active participant in UN peacekeeping keeps alive its claim for a permanent seat on the Security Council (as unrealistic as this goal may seem at the moment); demonstrates its commitment to peace and security, particularly in a global landscape where Japan is eager to keep up to China’s growing prominence; and provides useful and rare field experience for SDF personnel. In September 2015 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acted as a co-host, together with U.S. President Barack Obama, of the Leaders’ Summit on Peacekeeping in New York. While the Abe government would in principle like to reengage in peacekeeping, few of today’s missions meet the restrictions of Japan’s current peacekeeping law and the risk-averse standards of its government.
Moving forward, there are opportunities for both China and Japan to play a central role in the peace and security work of the UN, even in a context where peacekeeping is becoming more complex and dangerous. Secretary-General António Guterres has called for clearer, more realistic mandates that reflect the realities on the ground. As major donors with a direct stake, but also with a common sense that peacekeeping may have become overstretched in mandates and expectations, both countries can offer a useful reality check on what is feasible today.
At the same time, the protection of civilians concerns in many conflict-affected areas are unlikely to diminish, and all contributing member states should look to support protection mandates wherever possible. China’s deployment of several hundred troops to Mali has set a strong example, and the continued presence of Chinese forces in South Sudan is a reminder to Japan that shifts in domestic legislation will likely be needed if Tokyo is to keep up with Beijing when it comes to peacekeeping. Even if domestic opinion in Japan is insufficient to push for such changes now, Tokyo’s position as a top donor gives it standing also to press for robust approaches to protection.
The secretary general’s reform agenda also offers an important opportunity for both China and Japan. Guterres’ call for greater efforts at early conflict prevention — identifying and heading off escalation before it is too late — would help reduce the risks to civilians without putting peacekeepers in harm’s way. Conflict prevention should present a far less threatening set of activities for both countries, focused more on early support to fragile states rather than the more intrusive and potentially unrealistic mandates of peacekeeping. And there is a good case that it is more cost effective too. Strong, visible support for the UN’s new conflict prevention platform, while also looking to deepen engagement with peacekeeping wherever possible, offers a viable path for both China and Japan to build on the last 25 years and become even more prominent peace and security players for the next.
This article is based on a workshop of Chinese and Japanese academic experts, organized by the Danish Institute for International Studies and the Centre for Policy Research at UN University in May 2017. The workshop was conducted under the Chatham House Rule. The perspectives presented here are those of the authors alone.
Luke Patey is Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies.
Adam Day is Senior Policy Adviser at the Centre for Policy Research, United Nations University.
Sebastian von Einsiedel is Director at the Centre for Policy Research, United Nations University.