By Mao Yuelin
New Chinese peacekeeping forces to Mali, Lebanon and other places passed the UN equipment inspections around August 6. The Chinese peacekeeping force who has always passed the UN inspections with high standard has become a role model of the UN peacekeeping forces. However, thirty years ago, few people would have imagined that Chinese peacekeepers would make such good progress.
China joined the UN Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations on December 6, 1988. Although the first detachment of Chinese military observers did not start to work until 1990, and the first Chinese peacekeeping force was not sent to Cambodia until 1992, the Chinese military and police forces have made considerable effort and sacrifice in the UN peacekeeping missions for 30 years.
As the Trump administration tries to withdraw from the UN affairs, China’s presence in UN peacekeeping and other operations has been boosted due to its status as the second largest financial contributor to UN peacekeeping. However, a question arose at the same time.
In the face of a seventy-year old "peacekeeping" system with various intertwined forces and seriously constrained by the existing mechanism, will China clean up the mess and fill in the gap left by the big power, or try to offer some “fresh blood” from its own perspective such as the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) within the framework of the peacekeeping mechanism?
Thirty years of glory and doubt
The year 2018 marks the 30th anniversary of China’s participation in the UN peacekeeping mechanism.
China first dispatched observers to the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in 1989 and sent five UN military observers to the Middle East for the first time in 1990. It also sent a mission of 47 military observers and 400 engineering peacekeepers to Cambodia in 1992, signifying the establishment of the Chinese force to the UN peacekeeping forces. However, the move also set the tone for the Chinese peacekeeping force as a kind of construction troops for quite some time.
According to the information, China’s peacekeeping force in Cambodia was mainly involved in engineering projects, or some simple road construction works. As soon as the Chinese peacekeeping force arrived in Cambodia, its task was to repair Highway 4 and Highway 6, two domestic traffic arteries in the country. Chinese soldiers participated in repairing road pavement as well as six seriously-damaged bridges on Highway 4, and mine-sweeping operations during road construction, etc.
Under the obligation of the traditional military discipline of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the friendship between the Chinese and the Cambodian peoples, the Chinese peacekeeping force in Cambodia never violated any rule or regulation such as rape like the peacekeeping forces of other nations.
The self-disciplined Chinese peacekeeping force was well respected by the local people who often brought vegetables, meat, coconut water and bananas for them during the field constructions or marching.
It was dangerous to enter into Cambodia with the unsanitary local condition, where political factions were intensive, resulting to the initial casualties of the Chinese peacekeepers in 1992.
We all know that war kills countless heroes. Is it worthwhile for the Chinese people, to see their soldiers sacrifice for rehabilitating the battlefield that has nothing to do with China? This is a question that has always been asked by the military and police forces sent by China.
After the operations in Cambodia, China gradually increased its participation in the United Nations' Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKO) in the following years.
China stated that it agreed in principle to the United Nations Standby Arrangement Systems (UNSAS) in May 1997, signifying China’s positive attitude towards "peacekeeping". Two years later, the Chinese police force participated in the UNPKO as well as civil or commanding operations in de-escalation areas such as East Timor, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Haiti.
Furthermore, China established the Office of Peacekeeping Affairs under the Ministry of National Defense in 2001 and joined the first-class standby mechanism for UNPKO in February 2002, confirming that China could complete sending troops overseas within 90 days. China’s presence in UN peacekeeping has drastically increased.
Thereafter, China sent hundreds of engineer, transport and medical detachments to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, and Sudan's Darfur. It was not until 2013 that China sent security forces with self-defense capabilities in Mali's peacekeeping operations, but this did not guarantee absolute safety and security of Chinese peacekeepers in complex local situations.
Considering the issues remained in Mali are mainly related to the colonial and tribal entanglements from the imperialist period, the Chinese public has kept questioning if it is worthwhile for Chinese soldiers to fight for and die for causes unrelated to China.
What should China do?
China’s overseas peacekeeping force rose to a battalion after 2017. This has reflected China's commitment to more international responsibilities and deep participation in international peacekeeping, and showed that the international peacekeeping capability of the Chinese military rose to a new height, which allowed the Chinese peacekeeping force to cope with more challenges and play a greater role.
In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping committed 8,000 troops to the UN peacekeeping standby force. China ranks 11th in the world in terms of contributing to the number of peacekeeping troops, and is also the country with the largest number of peacekeeping troops among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
In addition, China has funded amounted to 800 million US dollars to the UNPKO, second only to the US which contributes to more than 28% of the budget. This means that China is likely to have greater voice in a series of peacekeeping operations in the future. If the Chinese military personnel can also serve as higher-level international peacekeeping commanders, it will also benefit the PLA.
However, the 70-year history of the peacekeeping operations means that the "peacekeeping forces" may not limit to peacekeeping missions only. As a matter of fact, the situation in Africa and other places has already shown that peacekeeping operations are bloody international intervention in which big powers pay money and offer munitions and poor countries offer lives. China does not want to see such situations but can hardly avoid it.
China sent a peacekeeping force to Mali in 2013 and combat troops to South Sudan to protect civilians a year later. These actions generated positive feedback on China’s image that was previously criticized by the Western media. As a country that was once affected by semi-colonial and semi-feudalism and rather resistant to the presence of foreign troops, China hopes African countries can handle the problems themselves in future.
As early as 2015, China had promised to the African Union (AU) to provide 100 million US dollars in aid to support the establishment of standing army and crisis-response force in Africa. This was finally fulfilled by September 2017, it showed, however, that China never gave up its commitment to offer some “beneficial supplement” other than the peacekeeping mechanism.
In this way, although historical issues remain problems for the future, Chinese peacekeeping operations will bring benefits to China's economic strategies in Africa and other countries. The 30-year history of Chinese Blue Helmets is clearly a valuable asset to the Chinese military, and China will keep the Blue Helmets in the way it wants in years to come.
Disclaimer: The author is Mao Yuelin. The article was translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of eng.chinamil.com.cn. Chinamil.com.cn does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. If the article carries photographs or images, we do not vouch for their authenticity.