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China’s small steps into UN peacekeeping are adding up

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Picture: AFP – Peacekeeping troops from China, deployed by the UN Mission in South Sudan, patrol in Juba.

By Courtney J Fung

Within the UN community and beyond, the People’s Republic of China is seen as a committed peacekeeping state, one that recognises the value of peacekeeping for the United Nations (UN) and for its own discrete foreign policy goals. In 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the UN, China became the second largest contributor to the peacekeeping budget, announcing additional financing for a new UN Peace and Development Fund; a further US$100M for African peacekeeping capacity training; and committed a fifth of the troops for the UN standby peacekeeping force. China unveiled its Peacekeeping Affairs Center in June 2018, in support of its international cooperation and capacity-building work, co-hosting UN trainings and workshops. Most recently, China has sought to chair expert working groups on peacekeeping intelligence and peacekeeper safety and security, among others. China deploys more UN peacekeeping troops than all the other UN Security Council permanent members combined,1 and over a dozen of its officers have had top military posts — serving as force commander, deputy force commander, sector commander, and deputy sector commander.

China views the UN as a core component of international order, but in need of reform to effectively address complex global governance issues in the emerging multipolar system. As such, China is advancing its vision for a “community of shared future for mankind,” where it uses state sovereignty and territoriality as the framework to bolster international peace and security. It promotes economic development, social stability, and a strong state infrastructure to resolve governance problems, while saying little on human rights or other key principles that guide UN work, like accountability and transparency. Thus, China’s “shared future” vision departs from the UN approach which combines development, human rights, peace, and security to achieve human protection.

In April 2022, China unveiled the Global Security Initiative where it detailed its “shared future” vision for a global security order (the concept paper came out in February 2023). The Global Security Initiative critiques the current security order as the source of global governance issues, and draws on China’s position of non-interference and a rejection of “power politics” to achieve security. The Global Security Initiative stands alongside the Belt and Road Initiative, the Global Development Initiative, and the recently announced Global Civilisation Initiative as the suite of global public goods promoted by China. The new initiative is of interest as it links China’s particular views on security with its more traditional “development first” approach to international politics, with these complementary initiatives shaping this “shared future” into targeted policy. As China considers the UN to be fundamental to this proposed security order, it sees its peacekeeping contributions as part of what makes this “shared future” possible, with troop deployments and funding underscoring China’s support of world peace, global development, and a multilateral world order.

Over the next decade, it is feasible that China will continue its efforts to shape peacekeeping to fit with its more technocratic and state-centric vision. China is already seeking greater policy leadership in peacekeeping through three avenues: financial support in committing $200M over a decade via its sponsorship of the UN Peace and Development Fund; championing select peace operations initiatives; and potentially securing even more senior roles in the Department of Peace Operations. China sees its UN Peace and Development Fund as proof that China is “fulfilling its duties as a major country and providing global development with public goods”.

Almost a third of the listed projects supported by the fund are related to peace operations — for example, peacekeeper safety and security, integrated planning training curriculum, and certification processes for UN formed police units — making peacekeeping projects the most popular supported by the fund. In addition, the fund has a strong focus on African projects, including projects that support the work of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and projects related to conflict prevention in the Great Lakes region and the Sahel, and Sudan/South Sudan. The fund reflects China’s efforts to have more of a voice within the UN system and advance its foreign policy vision as applied to peacekeeping and global security affairs. For example, China uses the disbursement of funds strategically to help its particular interests in South-South co-operation and African capacity development.

China’s tentative steps into policy design consist of efforts to lead on peacekeeping safety and security, which is a theme of the UN secretary-general’s Action for Peacekeeping platform to refine peacekeeping to meet current operational conditions. China’s leadership focuses on low-hanging fruit — better training, equipment, and medical care — while eschewing thorny issues regarding the use of force. This practical approach allows China to show leadership on policy and that its role in peacekeeping does not have to be limited to asset contributions.

China’s own recent experience of troop deaths by malicious acts in Mali and South Sudan has driven PRC policy leadership on peacekeeper safety and security issues. It used the UN Peace and Development Trust Fund to finance the work of the Cruz Report on improving the security of UN peacekeepers, and used its March 2020 UN Security Council rotating presidency to secure the unanimous endorsement of UN Security Council Resolution 2518 which — building on Resolutions 2436 (2018) and 2378 (2017) — was the first thematic resolution on the safety and security of peacekeepers. This effort is particularly notable as China is very rarely a penholder and brought on 40 plus Global South troop-contributing countries as co-sponsors. China founded the 2021 “Group of Friends on the Safety and Security of United Nations Peacekeepers”, putting peacekeeper safety and security on the formal work agenda during its May 2021 rotating presidency. China’s positions on peacekeeper safety and security reflect their state-first approach: capacity and capability support for better training and equipment can make peacekeepers safer by reducing deaths caused by accident or illness; along with a view that the host state must actively partner to ensure peacekeeper safety and security. It says very little about how peacekeeping can adapt to meet the operational challenges of securing robust civilian protection or human rights agendas.

As part of its approach to the United Nations, China identifies UN executive leadership posts that would raise China’s profile and improve its ability to set policy-specific strategic direction and shape the UN. Peacekeeping remains one of the most politically sensitive and high-salience agencies within the United Nations system. With China’s rise in peacekeeping, its alleged interest in heading the UN Department of Peace Operations is well-reported and perhaps unsurprising; sources cite “a decade-long” preparation campaign. Beijing elites lament that their contributions have yet to give China higher status and influence in peace operations management or decision-making, and see the most senior appointment as a high mark for China’s global security leadership.

China’s tentative steps toward policy leadership could be useful if it wanted to secure the highest office in peacekeeping. Indeed, observers note that PRC nationality is increasingly an asset for senior diplomacy as China becomes an increasingly important state in the UN and to UN leadership. Although it is highly unlikely that the French would easily relinquish this top post, especially given precedent and custom, this does not preclude China’s alleged interest, especially as China signals its gradual transition from serving not only as a peacekeeping contributor, but as a peacekeeping leader.

China will likely continue to shape peacekeeping along its preferences for a more technical and less overt political foreign policy tool. Due to a growing demand for funds for major initiatives, along with the UN’s interest in technological tools for international peace and security, China has had more opportunities to articulate and enact its vision while also emphasising the relative decline of Western influence within the UN system, in contrast with the West’s rhetorical and financial commitment to the world body. Moreover, the ambitious yet varied achievements of the human protection agenda along with the UN position that underdevelopment presents a challenge for human protection are openings for China’s advocacy for social stability and economic recovery as part of its “shared future.”

This article was published in the Global Observatory