President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the United States came with a lot of the usual and the expected, but it also delivered a few surprises. One was Xi’s announcement at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York that China is preparing to set up a permanent peacekeeping force of 8,000 soldiers, donate $100 million over the next five years to the African Union for the creation of an emergency response force, and contribute $1 billion over the next ten years for the establishment of a China-UN “peace and development fund.” This kind of contribution to global peacekeeping operations suggests that China may be ready to answer America’s call and become a “responsible stakeholder.” While contributions of this nature are sure to produce positive effects in many struggling states, Chinese actions signal a distinct shift in Chinese foreign policy, a shift that is being driven by motives other than a desire to promote peace.
Peacekeeping, emergency response, and disaster relief activities are excellent opportunities for power projection. While humanitarian assistance benefits struggling states, assisting states often offer assistance only when their assets and interests are on the line. As a general rule, in an anarchic international system, what are perceived as altruistic humanitarian endeavors are often self-serving actions. In most cases, China likes to pull plays out of the American playbook, but this time, it appears to be tossing in a few plays from Japan as well. Since the 1990s, Japan has been actively engaging in international disaster relief cooperation in an effort to create a more positive image of itself in the international community, protect economic assets abroad, and steadily create a place for Japanese military operations abroad. This process set the stage for the amending of the Japanese constitution and the re-militarization of Japan. For Japan, disaster relief has been an excellent outlet for increased power projection. While China and Japan have different long-term aspirations, there is reason to believe that China is interested in using peacekeeping for similar purposes.
As China’s influence grows and its national interests move further from its borders, China will need the ability to protect them. In April of this year, China sent a force of 700 peacekeeping units to South Sudan to contribute to ongoing peacekeeping efforts and humanitarian assistance projects there. As the world’s largest energy consumer, China is very interested in the oil fields in South Sudan; in fact, it is one of the largest investors in those oil fields. Problems within South Sudan, however, are slowing production, which is bad for business. Before 2013, it was rare to see the Chinese military operating far from its borders, but now, as China moves further away from the tao guang yang hui (“hide your light”) strategy put forward by Deng Xiaoping and embraces a more assertive and proactive approach to international relations and politics, the world is seeing People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval units carrying out “far seas operations,” the development of serious military hardware capable of hitting distant targets, such as nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, and long-range bombers, and the deployment of PLA forces abroad for rescue and relief activities, as well as the protection of Chinese interests and assets.
In terms of direct contributions to UN peacekeeping activities, the United States pays more than 28 percent of the $8.2 billion peacekeeping budget, making it the most significant contributor of economic support. China, however, is among the largest contributors of UN peacekeeping personnel. Over the years, China has sent more than 30,000 peacekeepers abroad for participation in 24 different operations, and among the UN peacekeeping force of 106,500 troops there are more than 3,000 Chinese police, soldiers, and military experts. Now, this number is being increased significantly. American UN peacekeeping personnel contributions are comparatively smaller, but this is because the United States typically directly involves its military in humanitarian projects and peacekeeping operations rather than redirect forces through the UN. As the hegemonic power and the leader of the present liberal world order, the United States has the ability to do this without causing high levels of concern. China, as a rising power with ambitions which are decidedly less clear, cannot do the same. Increased Chinese involvement in UN peacekeeping operations abroad is an opportunity for China to demonstrate leadership in the UN, the Asia-Pacific region, and the international system as a whole and a respectable cover for increased militarization, the internationalization of the Chinese military, and Chinese involvement in the affairs of other states, specifically those where Chinese interests are in jeopardy.
One of the major Chinese projects currently being carried out by the Xi Jinping administration is the “One Road, One Belt” initiative, which involves constructing a Silk Road Economic Belt through Central Asia and a Maritime Silk Road through parts of Southern and Southeast Asia. For this project, China is investing heavily in regional infrastructure development. One of a number of different factors threatening the success of this project is instability in many of the countries located along the proposed routes. There has been a lot of speculation about how China might respond if instability in one of these countries posed a threat to Chinese workers and investments. As diplomacy sometimes falls apart during times of crisis, military intervention is often a convenient course of action for states with something to lose, but such behavior would certainly harm China’s image abroad. China needs a way to handle affairs abroad without raising suspicion. What we will probably see in the near future, is China mimicking Japan to a certain extent and using disaster relief and peacekeeping needs as an excuse for increased militarization and power projection. Beyond that, it would not be at all unexpected for China to do as the United States has done on a number of different occasions and use humanitarian endeavors as opportunities for military intervention and the protection of Chinese assets and interests abroad. China is using its massive “One Road, One Belt” initiative to establish valuable inland energy passageways and trade routes; it would be out of the ordinary for China to avoid taking some sort of action to protect these if a threat emerged in one of the related countries.
In recent years, China has received a lot of criticism from other members of the international community for its increased assertiveness, particularly in the South China Sea and East China Sea. China’s actions have revived the “China Threat Theory” and stirred up tension throughout Asia. Many countries are concerned about China’s rise, which has created feelings of unease throughout the Asia-Pacific region. This has, for obvious reasons, hindered some of China’s diplomatic activities abroad and made certain projects more difficult. China needs a way to project power and secure its interests without raising concerns about its intentions. On numerous occasions, Chinese officials have stated that China will not interfere in the affairs of foreign countries. China’s firm stance against foreign intervention in the affairs of other states stems from its past experiences with imperial powers and its fear of American intervention in Chinese affairs. For China, the problem is that this particular stance leaves Chinese interests abroad vulnerable to a diverse collection of threats. Peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance are the perfect avenues for power projection for the purpose of securing its people and investments. These activities serve as loopholes for intervention for non-interventionists.
In the next few years, the world is likely to see increased Chinese “integration” into global peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. There is substantial evidence to suggest that China is attempting to re-establish a Sino-centric regional order in the Asia-Pacific as part of what it calls the reformation and improvement of the international system by the world’s developing countries. As openly announcing this mission would most likely encourage greater resistance to its rise, China needs to find other justifications for its actions abroad and mix revisionism into activities for which the primary goal is the protection and preservation of the status quo. Involvement in peacekeeping operations offers opportunities for China to internationalize its military and learn how to manage and respond to various situations and challenges abroad, making it easier for China to realize its international goals without increasing tensions. As China makes progress on some of its major projects, the world is likely to see greater Chinese military involvement in peacekeeping operations in places in Africa, Southern Asia, the Middle East, and Central Asia, regions where its national interests are rapidly multiplying.
China’s recent contributions to peacekeeping suggest that China might finally be ready to become a “responsible stakeholder,” but more importantly, it signifies that China has risen to great power status and is preparing to project power beyond its borders. China needs a stable international environment for growth and development, but it also has a tendency to operate outside standard international norms when pursuing its various national interests. As this has the potential to produce positive and negative results, it would be in the best interests of the international community to adopt a watchful stance to ensure that the preservation of peace and stability is still among the primary aspirations of Chinese peacekeeping activities. While we can expect positive outcomes from Chinese peacekeeping actions abroad, we can also expect “peacekeeping with Chinese characteristics” to produce side effects, especially given that while world peace is an exceptionally admirable goal, states are rarely interested in pursuing it over their own interests.