Chinese combat troops face gunfire, diseases in UN deployment in South Sudan

Global Times
Zhang Tao

China dispatched an infantry battalion to South Sudan in 2014 for a UN peacekeeping mission, the first combat-focused Chinese battalion sent to one of the most dangerous conflict zones in Africa. These soldiers have faced danger to fulfill China's promise to take a more prominent peacekeeping role - with some even giving their lives.

The Ministry of Defense (MOD) told the Global Times on Monday in a written interview that the battalion consists of 700 combat troops, while in the past, UN peacekeeping deployments were smaller, normally consisting of approximately 300 soldiers, and China previously only sent sapper or medical corps.

Some two thirds of the second group from battalion sent to South Sudan were born after 1990, while most of the rest were born after 1980-90. The young battalion also has 14 women, the MOD said.

These young soldiers and officers also need to execute more dangerous missions than their predecessors and colleagues on other UN peacekeeping missions. Before South Sudan, Chinese UN peacekeeping forces' main missions were not combat-focused but tended to be supporting missions such as engineering, transportation, medical treatment and mine clearance, the MOD said.

South Sudan is the youngest country in the world. It was founded in 2011, and has faced recurring bouts of civil conflict since then.

The civil war has escalated into a serious humanitarian crisis. According to the UN International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF)'s latest information, more than one third of South Sudan's population - 4.8 million people - are facing severe food shortages. Malnutrition rates in 7 of the country's 10 states have reached the emergency threshold, according to UNICEF estimates, meaning that more than 15 per cent of the population is malnourished. In some areas the ratio has reached 33 per cent.

In addition, an estimated 16,000 children have been recruited by armed groups since the ongoing crisis in South Sudan first began in December 2013, UNICEF said.

Advanced equipment

The MOD said the Chinese battalion in South Sudan has to safeguard civilians, UN refugee camps and the base of the UN peacekeeping force.

In addition, the battalion also needs to show the UN peacekeeping force's presence on the battlefiled to mediate armed conflicts. All of these missions require powerful combat capacity, equipment and experience.

Since the 1979 China-Vietnam War, China hasn't fought a war with another country, and the young soldiers face huge challenges and dangers in a conflict zone flooded by hostile elements and diseases.

However, their youth doesn't mean they are not prepared for the peacekeeping mission and even for combat. All of the soldiers speak some English, with all officers fluent in the language and some proficient in Arabic.

As for their equipment, apart from engineering and medical equipment, the battalion has helicopters, armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) with machine gun turrets, MOD said.

According to the Beijing News, the battalion also has unmanned aerial vehicles, anti-tank rocket launchers and mortars, and every member has heavy body armor with ceramic-coated steel plates. Zhu Jiangming, a military and international politics expert, told the Beijing News in 2014 that this battalion's equipment is better than the average Chinese battalion.

Dangerous missions

According to a documentary aired by China Central Television (CCTV) in January, armed conflict between government forces and militia groups exploded in Mundri in October 2015, west of the capital Juba. The battalion's base sits between areas controlled by the warring parties.

On July 10, Corporal Li Lei, 22, and Master Sergeant Yang Shupeng, 33, were killed in fighting between government troops and forces in Juba, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

Due to UN rules, the battalion can only use force if it is first attacked. However, militia groups have tried to bring the Chinese into the fight.

Major Zhang Yong said, "Militia soldiers were shooting at government troops and approaching our location simultaneously." Zhang said "their purpose was clear; make the government troops fire on us and then we will be forced to join the fight."

Lieutenant Wang Pei told CCTV that many civilians have fled to areas near the battalion's base to avoid the conflict.

The battalion decided to use the IFV's gun turret to deter the militia soldiers and to warn them not to approach and to hold their fire, otherwise the battalion will take action. Chen Lüe, an officer who can speak Arabic used a loudspeaker to deliver the warning message.

Afterward, the militiamen stopped shooting and withdrew from the zone. The battalion played a significant role in successfully preventing conflict and bloodshed on that day, CCTV said.

Their most dangerous mission was on July 10, 2016. The MOD said an IFV was shot by an RPG when it was sent to protect No.1 Civilian Protection Camp, which caused the deaths of two Chinese soldiers and injured five others.

Qian Liyan, a military expert and former peacekeeper who has served in South Sudan, told the Global Times on Wednesday that South Sudan's sanitary conditions are very poor; compared to RPGs and small arms fire, the threat from diseases is much more frequent and serious.

Qian said, "in order to provide medical treatment for refugees, our medics in the camp have to touch dozens or even hundreds of refugee patients every day. This kind of environment will put heavy mental pressure on the soldiers and it's extremely easy to be affected."

Responsible power

Song Zhongping, a Beijing-based military expert, told the Global Times on Wednesday that although the peacekeeping mission in South Sudan is highly dangerous, China is still willing to take on the responsibility.

In a 2015 speech at the UN Headquarters in New York, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised that China will contribute 8,000 peacekeeping personnel in the future, so "the battalion in South Sudan is a part of the promise."

More importantly, the peacekeeping force needs permission from the conflict-ridden state. "Compared to Western countries, China's military presence in Africa is much more acceptable to the local governments and people, especially in Sudan and South Sudan," Song said.

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