On September 18, China’s State Council Information Office published a white paper on China’s peacekeeping forces at the United Nations titled, “China’s Armed Forces: 30 Years of U.N. Peacekeeping Operations.” It was the first of its kind. In previous years, peacekeeping forces would get a section on China’s occasionally published defense white papers, the most recent of which was published in July 2019.
So why did China move to publish a separate white paper on U.N. Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKOs)?
Since the start of the decade, Beijing has incubated its intention to become a global security provider, but according to its own definition. China has refused to adopt sections of Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter and the pillar of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which prescribes external interventions as a measure of last resort to prevent mass atrocity crimes. The failure of military interventions such as the NATO intervention in Libya, conducted under the banner of R2P, to bring peace to target countries has given China a working hypothesis about how to proceed as a global security provider. Distancing itself from military intervention abroad, China limits the concept of R2P to the use of consent-based U.N. peacekeeping deployments.
Associating itself with U.N. peacekeeping missions gives China self-assurance as a global security provider. Today, China is the largest provider of peacekeepers among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, with 40, 000 peacekeepers contributed to more than 30 missions. The China-U.N. Peace and Development Fund has provided $67.7 million for 80 projects related to peacekeeping operations since President Xi Jinping announced the fund in 2015.
China was previously a reluctant actor in the global security order, as Beijing was extremely hesitant about certain features of the U.N. Security Council. In particular, the use of military force overseas contradicts China’s fundamental foreign policy principle of state sovereignty.
In that context, Courtney J. Fung has noted that Chinese involvement in peacekeeping not only provides China with great power status but also bolsters its image as a supporter of states in the Global South.
In a recent commentary for the Brookings Institution, Richard Gowan also pointed out that engagement with peacekeeping offers China a platform for multilateral cooperation with the United States within the U.N. system, which otherwise is deteriorating.
The recent white paper, published in both Chinese and English, has five sections and three annexures with details of numbers of China’s participation in UNPKOs. According to the preface, “the Chinese government is issuing this white paper to review the glorious journey of China’s armed forces in the UNPKOs over the past 30 years, to expound their ideas on safeguarding world peace in the new era, and to elaborate on the efforts they make.”
Like China’s previously published defense white papers, this paper elaborately focuses on building the narrative that China’s peaceful intent is rooted in inherent cultural factors:
China’s armed forces participate in the UNPKOs because the pursuit of peace is in the genes of the Chinese nation. The Chinese nation values peace and harmony… For millennia, peace has been in the veins and the DNA of the Chinese nation. It is a consistent goal of China’s armed forces.
Unsurprisingly, the paper relates China’s participation in UNPKOs with China’s role as a responsible stakeholder of the international system:
As a founding member of the U.N. and a responsible member of the international community, China honors its obligations, firmly supports the U.N.’s authority and stature, and actively participates in the UNPKOs… to participate in the UNPKOs is integral to China’s joint efforts with other countries to build a community with a shared future for mankind.
Beijing’s recent push to hold more high-level U.N. political posts associated with peacekeeping operations shows serious China is about its future commitment to UNPKOs. In early 2019, Chinese Diplomat Huang Xia became the first Chinese citizen to be appointed as a special envoy to a UNPKO, when U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed him as a special envoy for Africa’s Great Lakes region.
A Chinese Way of Building Peace
China’s emerging interest in building a Chinese approach to peace-building can be seen as another key reason for publishing the white paper.
China’s growing interest in UNPKOs and peace-building is also apparent from Chinese scholars’ increasing interest in the subject. A quick China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) search shows that 561 academic journal articles have been published in the Chinese language about UNPKOs since 1992, with the research at its peak since 2014. Most of the research from 2014 to 2020 concerns the linking of UNPKOs to China’s attempts at public image building and norm creation, as well as general research about the U.N. strategy in implementing peacekeeping forces.
He Yin, a Chinese scholar at the China Peace Keeping Police Training Center, at the Chinese People’s Armed Police Academy, published an article in 2017 to provide an understanding of China’s approach to peace-building, which he referred to as “developmental peace” (发展和平). The developmental peace concept holds that economic development can ensure political and social stability. He argues that China’s foreign aid and economic activities have spread developmental peace internationally and had an impact on the normative regime of U.N. peacekeeping and peace-building. His recent work discusses the need to broaden China’s horizon in U.N. peacekeeping from a budget contributor to a norm contributor.
He’s research aligns with China’s official rhetoric and practice of peace-building. The English version of the white paper mentions the phrase “peace and development” 25 times.
When discussing the Chinese view of peace-building, the emphasis on respecting territorial sovereignty, no military intervention, and host state consent remain at the forefront. Even though the white paper does not go into detail on these points, a position paper published separately on the 75th anniversary of the U.N. extensively mentions these norms:
The U.N. needs to improve the capacity of peacekeeping operations to fulfill its mandate, observe the three principles of “consent of parties, impartiality, and non-use of force except in self-defense and defense of the mandate,” and help post-conflict countries build lasting peace.
Beijing’s overly cautious attitude about host states’ consent also stems from China’s insecurity over its own domestic issues, such as the profound criticism of the international community about Chinese government policy in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“Political settlement” is another buzzword widely used by China for its conflict resolution approach in almost all civil war crises – from Libya, Syria and South Sudan to China’s neighbor Myanmar. By political settlement, Chinese policymakers mean the resolution of crises through dialogue and negotiation.
The position paper uses the word “political settlement” multiple times in connection with issues such as Palestine and Israel, Afghanistan’s and Myanmar’s peace processes, the Middle East and Syria. It also subtly mentions political settlement as a Chinese way of finding solutions to global and regional crises.
With the Belt and Road Initiative and China’s growing willingness to take part in global governance, China is making its presence felt as a bridge-builder in international conflicts by actively pursuing mediation activities. According to Berlin-based MERICS, by 2017, China was found to be mediating in nine conflicts as compared to three in 2012.
The above analysis shows the importance and timely appearance of both the white paper and position paper with regards to understanding the Chinese approach to peace-building. However, China’s approach is already coming under criticism. The Chinese vision of peace is described by some scholars as a form of negative peace – the absence of armed clashes rather than the holistic resolution of conflicts. They argue that the concept deals with peace-building in a vague, superficial way, without giving much attention to the root causes of the conflicts.
Jayshree Borah is a Doctoral Candidate at Shanghai International Studies University, Shanghai. Previously she has worked as a Research Assistant at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.