Written by Courtney J. Fung.

There are almost 130,000 UN peacekeepers in the field today, with over two thirds in active conflict zones. The United Nations is now in charge of the second largest fielded ‘army’ in the world, spread across sixteen diverse missions. China is a key UN player. A veto-empowered state, often leading with the highest troop contributions of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, China is currently deployed to nine missions, with 2,020 troops on mission.[1]  China is increasingly active in mandate design and is now the sixth largest contributor to UN peacekeeping accounts.[2]  There is a dedicated Office for Peacekeeping Affairs within the PLA and a Peacekeeping Division within the Ministry of Public Security, staffed with officers with experience at both the UN Secretariat and on mission. Between these two bureaus, China maintains three peacekeeping training centres. In recognition of China’s commitment and expertise, PLA major generals have been appointed force commanders on mission, the top military field post.

China has built an excellent reputation within the UN deploying highly-trained and sought-after enabler troops – the logisticians, engineers and medical teams that support peacekeeping missions in the field.  China started increasing its troop contributions at a time of severe overstretch in UN operational capacity. Chinese participation in UNAMID in Darfur, in UNIFIL in Lebanon and in MONUC in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, supported high-profile, large-scale missions short of desperately needed enabler units. Without these assets, peacekeeping missions with state-building, peace enforcement and civil society components would have been hamstrung. In 2013, China modified its peacekeeping participation profile to include deploying “comprehensive security forces” to Mali. This was a significant step for China, a departure from its ‘more tail than tooth’ functions; and in committing this unit, China made “a major breakthrough in our participation in peacekeeping,” according to Chen Jian, former permanent representative to the United Nations. China is also in discussions over deploying military helicopters to serve in UNOCI in Cote d’Ivoire, which would be a new type of commitment, addressing a significant shortfall in UN capabilities.

China is a norm consumer within the UN peacekeeping regime – keenly supporting the UN peacekeeping principles of consent, impartiality and limited use of force in self-defense or defense of the mandate. In contrast to norm entrepreneurs that seek to integrate more radical concepts to peacekeeping, like Brazil’s broader interpretation of self-defense or Australia’s push to weave the responsibility to protect into peacekeeping, China more modestly advocates pedestrian innovations for peacekeeping, such as the norms that all UN peacekeeping missions should have UNSC authorization and that regional organizations should have a greater say on matters of peacekeeping and intervention.

Since UN peacekeeping missions are almost by definition UNSC approved, and since China is a veto power, it would appear this norm is a moot point. However, China’s reaffirmation of this norm is in part driven by the fact that the United Nations is its sole venue for multinational interventions. Keeping states focused on this platform, as opposed to other regional fora or bypassing the United Nations-led system completely, is in China’s interests. China works to conform to this norm, and has shown itself reluctant to use vetoes; too many of such votes would make the United Nations a pointless venue to arbitrate international affairs. When faced with resolutions it does not agree with, China typically uses a combination of activities: attempting to modify the resolution’s language, threatening its veto to bring about change, and casting abstention votes, therefore demonstrating its principled opposition without preventing UN Security Council action.

Second, with a role for regional arrangements enshrined in Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, as complementary organs to the UN Security Council in the upkeep of international peace and security, these groups are increasingly“gatekeepers” for UN Security Council action: if regional organizations support a particular policy action, then the UN Security Council is more likely to follow suit.[3] Regional organizations are regarded as the heart of China’s political, military, and economic outreach strategies, and in the event of humanitarian crises, China advocates for the say of regional organizations concerned.  China’s initial reluctance to promote intervention into Darfur; vetoes over Myanmar and Zimbabwe interventions, and most recent votes regarding intervention into the Libyan civil war, were all explained in relation to positions of the relevant regional groupings.

To a certain extent, China supports peacekeeping norms because of self-interest – the trifecta of these norms enforce an international system where states maintain their sovereignty despite the encroachment of other pro-intervention actors. The Chinese rhetoric on peacekeeping reflects wider foreign policy tenets of respecting state sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs of the state, as reflected in the touchstone for Chinese foreign policy, the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence.

However, there is evidence that China pursues these norms for non-instrumental, identity purposes also. China is the only power in the UN peacekeeping regime that is simultaneously a great power and a developing state. China stands as a great power – with its veto vote at the UN Security Council, its ability to fund peacekeeping and its commitment to deploying expensive to train enabler troops. In this position, China signals its responsibilities to take on greater commitments for shaping international security. The peacekeeping regime highlights that China is in part acting consistently with a socially constructed sense of purpose regarding its role in the world.  Yet, on matters of intervention, China still views itself as a developing state, and therefore as a member of the Global South – symbolized by its membership in the G77+China and observer position in the Non-Aligned Movement.  The Global South is not a fixed, homogenous entity, rather a term that captures states with differing economic and political systems, drawn together by their experiences of a power disparity with the global elite. The cornerstone of China’s relationship with the Global South is an emphasis on the respect for sovereignty, and indeed, China pays special attention to the need for host state and the opinions of regional organizations. Though China’s stance on sovereignty is carefully applied in practice, and its erosion of an absolutist commitment is well documented, even with China’s rising economic might, its commitment to the Global South is yet to waiver. By abiding by these norms and advocating for ones that further harden a state-centric system, China is indeed conforming to standards of good behaviour as defined by its Global South peers.

Ultimately, China’s emphasis on the centrality of the UN Security Council as the ‘first resort’ [4] for the smooth conduct of international affairs is an incentive for China to be consistent as an active participant in the peacekeeping regime. Such efforts place China as part of the hardworking community of states that actually carry out the gritty, messy work of enhancing local security in the field – often members of the Global South – while also standing China as a first among equals at the UN Security Council, as a great power making potentially costly commitments on behalf of international peace and security.

Courtney J. Fung is Assistant Professor of International Relations, Department of Politics and Public Administration, The University of Hong Kong. Image credit: CC by MONUSCO Photo/Flickr


[1] In line with the peacekeeping literature, police contributions are kept as a separate matter, not included in this study. UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, “October 2014 Country Contributions by Mission,”: http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/contributors/2014/oct14_3.pdf.

[2] For an explanation of the formula used to derive peacekeeping assessments, see Implementation of General Assembly Resolutions 55/235 and 55/236, Report of the Secretary-General, U.N.Doc. A/67/224/Add.1, 27 December 2012.

[3] Alex J. and Paul Williams, “The New Politics of Protection?  Cote d’Ivoire, Libya and the Responsibility to Protect.” International Affairs 87 (4), 2011: 825 – 850.

[4] As opposed to the Security Council as a “last resort” as lamented by then Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Alain Le Roy.  Alain Le Roy, “Looking Forward: Peace Operations in 2020,” in Thierry Tardy (ed.), For a Renewed Consensus on UN Peacekeeping Operations. Geneva: Geneva Center for Security Policy (2011): 21–27, 21.

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