China and UN Peacekeeping

China and UN Peacekeeping
Chinese peacekeepers serving with the United Nations in Juba were awarded the UN Medal for Service in October 2017. The peacekeepers (685 men and 13 women) were part of the third Chinese Peacekeeping Battalion to serve with the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). For almost three decades, China has contributed more than 30,000 UN peacekeepers to 24 different Missions and it is the second largest financial contributor to peacekeeping.UNMISS/Eric Kanalstein

For the last year or so, I have been researching China’s contributions to UN peacekeeping. It has been an interesting journey, culminating in a new CIPS report, 30 years of Chinese Peacekeeping, which will be launched on January 24, 2019.

As a preview of the report, here are the five most important lessons I learned in the course of my research:

  1. Apparently, the world of China watchers is split into panda huggers and dragon slayers. Panda huggers see China’s progress as a great thing for the world; dragon slayers see China as a global threat. Needless to say, the two camps hate each other. When it comes to UN peacekeeping, I came to understand that China’s contributions are extremely valuable to UN peacekeeping efforts. Does that make me a panda hugger? Maybe, but it certainly sets me apart from the dragon slayers, who see even China’s contributions to UN peacekeeping as sinister.
  2. Today, China is an important peacekeeper. This graph shows the number of Chinese UN peacekeepers at the end of 2018. Compare that to the number of Canadian UN peacekeepers, and you get a sense of how important China has become.


China is by far the largest troop contributor of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. But China’s importance as a peacekeeper lies not only in the numbers of UN personnel. China also pays 10.25% of the UN peacekeeping budget, making it the second largest contributor of all member states. It has a standing peacekeeping force of 8,000, consisting of six infantry battalions, three companies of engineers, two transport companies, four second-grade hospitals, four security companies, three fast-reaction companies, two medium-sized multipurpose helicopter units, two transport aircraft units, one drone unit, and one surface naval ship. According to UN assessments, the quality of these units is very high.

  1. Contrary to the assumptions of the dragon slayers, China’s engagement in peacekeeping is not linked to its rapidly growing economic interests in Africa and elsewhere. Chinese peacekeepers are deployed proportionally to the same world regions as any other UN peacekeepers. At the end of 2018, 80% of UN peacekeepers and 80% of Chinese peacekeepers were based in Africa. Resource-rich countries are not more likely to attract Chinese peacekeeping than resource-poor countries. China deploys its peacekeepers in line with UN requests rather than its own national interests.
  2. Given China’s significant investment in its peacebuilding capabilities over the last two decades, it is clear that China will maintain or even increase its contribution to UN peacekeeping in future. In addition, China’s contribution to peacekeeping will increase by default because other major powers, among them the US, are reducing spending on peacekeeping and less inclined to pledge troops. China’s growing influence in peacekeeping will also lead to China seeking more leadership positions within the UN peacekeeping architecture.
  3. UN peacekeeping is constantly transforming itself. In the past, China has followed all the turns that UN peacekeeping took. With its increased weight in the UN, the question arises of whether China will increasingly shape the future of UN peacekeeping norms. The emerging Chinese approach may challenge the typically Western-dominated concepts of peace and peacebuilding in two particular fields.

First regards the place of human rights in peacekeeping missions. Many observers at the UN have noted that China has recently attempted to curb the number of human rights positions within UN peace operations. Most recently, such attempts were made during negotiations for the UN’s 2018–2019 budget. China also promotes its own narrative of human rights, for example, by tabling resolutions in the UN Human Rights Council.

Second regards peace and peacebuilding itself. Given its own historic experiences and its political regime, the Western “liberal” peace with its emphasis on democracy, good governance, strong civil society, and a strong push for fast transformation does not resonate with Chinese thinking. An emerging Chinese narrative juxtaposes the “liberal” peace with the notion of a “developmental” peace rooted in Chinese tradition. Developmental peace prioritizes economic development, supports gradual change, emphasizes the role of strong government, substitutes values-based good governance with results-based effective governance, and seeks to promote this model not by imposing but rather by incentivizing imitation and learning.

The future of UN peacekeeping, and China’s role in it, remain fascinating research topics. To hear more about China’s current and future role as a peacekeeper, join us for the launch of the new CIPS report, 30 years of Chinese Peacekeeping, on January 24, 2019.

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