While Americans recognize China’s rapid rise as an economic powerhouse, the implications remain murky. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, most people unfavorably view China as the world’s leading economic power. Indeed, twenty percent of Americans viewed China, not Iran, as America’s top enemy in 2014. When discussing China, Americans think of its 13.39 trillion GDP (2013 est.), expansion into the South China Sea or human rights abuses.
Yet China’s global influence is expanding in surprising ways. China is the largest contributor to UN peacekeeping operations of all the permanent members of the UN Security Council. China’s rise in peacekeeping operations is indicative of China’s rise in global prominence by both expanding its role in foreign affairs and protecting its own economic interests.
China currently contributes 2181 police, military experts and troops to UN Peacekeeping missions –seventeen times more than the U.S. contribution. These peacekeeping forces are scattered around the world located in areas ranging from Mali to Lebanon to Cyprus according to data collected in 2013. It ranks 13th among countries dedicating troops to peacekeeping missions.
China’s leadership in UN peacekeeping operations leaves many experts asking one question: Why? In December, a Chinese infantry battalion joined UN peacekeepers in South Sudan, the first time China had sent an infantry battalion on a peacekeeping mission. According to the Chinese publication Xinhuanet, the answer is simple: It signals “Beijing’s growing role in world affairs.” Emilio Cardenas, Argentina’s former Ambassador to the UN, said China’s “leading role and influence are clearly on the rise.” By providing military support in war-torn regions, China indicates its rise on the global stage, as it no longer restricts its power to regional affairs. The Chinese government views its rise in peacekeeping forces as commensurate with the international community’s expectations of increased Chinese involvement in promoting peace and stability. China may seek to gain soft power and goodwill from its participation in UN Peacekeeping missions after its provocative actions in the South China Sea.
The more skeptical might vehemently disagree, and claim that China is acting merely to ensure a steady supply of oil from South Sudan. Five percent of China’s oil imports came from Sudan in 2011. Indeed, prior to the break-up of Sudan from 2003 to 2006, China backed the Sudanese governments by providing more than $55 million in small arms in addition to aircraft and heavy weaponry, reportedly due to its reliance on Sudanese oil. In general, top contributors, such as Bangladesh and India, to peacekeeping forces tend to be located near post-conflict areas with vested interests in resolving tensions. China’s involvement may also be self-serving.
Beyond the monetary incentives, peacekeeping missions also benefit China militarily. As the Chinese military and police force deploy around the world, China not only gains experience for its soldiers and police, it also builds a global presence. Unlike the United States, which operates 700 to 800 military bases abroad, China does not have a global network of military bases. Instead, it has peacekeepers.
Why should Americans care about China’s growing dispatch of military peacekeepers? Besides offering hope of de-escalation in war-torn regions, they demonstrate that China is a global power. When we talk about UN peacekeeping operations, we need to talk about China. When discussing China, Americans must remember that China’s military presence is not limited to the South China Sea. Its participation in peacekeeping missions allows it to maintain a global military presence. While U.S. policymakers often discuss the rebalance to Asia as if it were separate from foreign policy goals in other regions, it must recognize that China cannot be localized to East Asia. Acknowledging China’s international posture is crucial not only for improving U.S.-China relations but also for resolving disputes around the globe. China has gone global – it’s time for the U.S. to recognize that.
Emma Campbell-Mohn attends Duke University where she serves as the co-chair on the Duke Council on American Grand Strategy and president of the Alexander Hamilton Society. She previously studied at the National University of Singapore. This article was originally published in The Duke Political Review on February 10, 2015.