Subject: There's method in China's peace push

Asia Times

Dec 21, 2007

There's method in China's peace push

By Rebecca Jackson

Last month, Chinese peacekeepers started arriving in the troubled Darfur region of Sudan as part of the long-debated, long-awaited United Nations and African Union hybrid mission. China now contributes over 7,000 peacekeepers to 21 missions across the world, more than the rest of the UN Security Council's permanent five members combined. Overall, China is the thirteenth-largest contributor of peacekeeping troops.

Claiming that China was complicit in the conflict through oil and weapons trade with Khartoum, rebels in the area immediately called for the withdrawal of Chinese troops. Nevertheless, the troops have stayed put. Their presence in the country illustrates how far China has come in its involvement in peacekeeping efforts.

Despite all this, China-watchers have tended to neglect peacekeeping as an expanding arena of involvement in international relations. Such is the case in Africa, China's showcase for peacekeeping. The continent hosts the majority of ongoing missions, but troops committed by industrialized countries now account for just 6% of all troops.

In the early years after joining the UN, in the 1970s, China avoided supporting peacekeeping missions - both financially and with contributions of troops - saying that they infringed upon the sovereignty of the states involved. But after two decades of reform and opening up, China has now started to reassess its approach to peacekeeping missions.

In 1981, China participated in its first peacekeeping vote, and in 1990 dispatched its first peacekeepers to the Middle East. Since then, the country has contributed peacekeepers to missions across the globe - beyond Africa, in Cambodia, Bosnia/Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, Haiti and Lebanon.

As China expert Bates Gill, director of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, points out, in real terms, China's contribution to UN peacekeeping is comparatively small. "China contributes less than 1% of both the overall UN budget and the UN peacekeeping budget." And the financial contributions of rest of the permanent five are still significantly higher than China's.

Viewed over time, however, China's peacekeeping activities today demonstrate a significant shift.

China's participation in peacekeeping missions now also extends beyond those with a Chapter VI mandate, in which countries should first seek their own resolution to disputes, to those with a Chapter VII mandate, permitting the use of military force in order to achieve peace.

China has traditionally favored conflict-ridden countries to resolve their own disputes, as the sovereignty of states is of utmost importance. But some flexibility is now evident on the issue of non-interference, as seen most recently in China's vote in favor of the UNAMID mission in Darfur.

China has also demonstrated increased flexibility on the extent to which force can be used in missions. The International Force in East Timor (INTERFET) was permitted to "take all necessary measures" to restore peace and security to the area. As with the mission in Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, they demonstrate that China will participate in operations using military force marking a move into peace enforcement activities.

The country's participation in INTERFET also shows that, where necessary, China will participate in missions that do not primarily use UN troops. The East Timor mission was led by Australia. Similarly, the peace operations in Somalia in the early 1990s demonstrate that even where the pivotal country is the US, China will not necessary block resolutions from being passed.

However, host state acquiescence remains an important cornerstone of China's acceptance of peacekeeping missions and was a pre-conditional to China's involvement in UNAMID in Darfur. In 1999, following mass bloodshed in East Timor, China voted in favor of a resolution to bring peace and security to the region, but only after the invitation of the government there.

INTERFET also demonstrated the utmost importance of Security Council authorization in peace keeping and peace enforcement missions.

So what has motivated China to become more involved in UN peacekeeping efforts?

Maintaining a stable and secure international environment is important for China's "rise". Appearing to be a responsible player is seen as an important way for China to achieve this, and involvement in international peacekeeping plays an integral role in projecting this image.

As Major General Zhang Qinsheng, deputy chief of General Staff for China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) put it, "Chinese peacekeeping activities demonstrate our country's image as a responsible superpower ... and in the course of peacekeeping activities under the UN Charter, China sets a glorious example."

China has long supported multilateralism in international relations. Increasingly China sees its own security and well-being as intricately interlinked with that of other countries. The UN is seen as an effective platform for collective action to deal with the threats, and the best venue to exercise a multilateralist policy. As Yin He, associate professor at the China Peacekeeping Training Center, has said, greater involvement in peacekeeping can yield valuable political currency to promote its multilateral agenda.

China's involvement in peacekeeping can help strengthen the UN's authority and serve to balance against an increase in unilateral behavior, especially by the US. What's more, as Bates Gill points out, following the NATO bombing of Kosovo, greater involvement in peacekeeping is a way for Beijing to ensure that they are involved in the design of international intervention efforts more in line with their policies.

Doubts have been raised about China's real interest in undertaking peacekeeping missions for humanitarian reasons. Indeed, it is doubtful whether an absolute "normative shift" has occurred in Beijing's thinking on peacekeeping. But China isn't alone on that count.

Regardless of the real reasons behind China's increased participation, there have been real humanitarian benefits from it - not only outside China, but also inside, where involvement in peacekeeping has arguably opened China up to international influence on human rights norms.

Where next for China? There may be limits to China's participation over the coming years. In theory, China sees multilateralism as the best way to ensure security for all. But when their vital interests, including Taiwan, are thought to be at risk, officials in Beijing will resort to viewing their country's security and that of the rest of the world as two separate coins rather than two sides of the same coin.

For example, although China has publicly reprimanded Myanmar recently over its crackdown on protests, it has consistently blocked action against the country, arguing that sanctions could further destabilize the country and concerned about repercussions at home. It is highly unlikely that in the near future China will agree to action in a part of the world so close to home.

The Myanmar case illustrates that in some circumstances, China does not have an interest in encouraging intervention in other countries for fear of leaving itself open to external meddling in its own affairs.

China is also likely to continue to be cautious on Security Council resolutions that permit the use of force. And host state acceptance along with Security Council authorization will remain essential elements of future peacekeeping and enforcement activities.

With the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing fast approaching, China is likely to find itself back in the spotlight after attention moved west following September 11, 2001. Already, international condemnation over Darfur has poured cold water on China's Olympic zeal. Depending on how attention mounts, China may choose to keep a lower profile over the next few years on peacekeeping activities - traditionally one of the most high-profile dimensions of UN operations.

In a similar vein, it is unlikely in the near future that China will contribute PLA troops to peacekeeping missions around the world. Already, US perceptions of China as a threat have hindered cooperation, with the US restricting Chinese access to information and technological data.

However, China supports UN reform with respect to peacekeeping missions. In response to the Lakhdar Brahimi Report on UN peacekeeping reform, China said it "supports the enhancement of the UN's peacekeeping capacity and welcomes the secretary general's proposal on the establishment of strategic reserves and civilian police standby capacity".

And unless vital interests are threatened or the world's renewed attention takes a particularly hostile turn, peacekeeping will remain a useful and important way for China to be seen as a responsible player in international affairs.

Rebecca Jackson is an independent consultant on China, currently working on a China-EU Energy and Climate security project at Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs) in London.

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