China’s growing role in United Nations peacekeeping operations brings much-needed resources to bear in conflict zones, where other states have often held back.
But Beijing’s growing involvement also means that China will want a greater say in shaping the rules of peacekeeping, especially when it comes to the place of human rights in peacekeeping missions. Democratic states should rise to this challenge while welcoming the additional resources that Chinese engagement makes available.
When China joined the U.N. in 1971, it opposed international peacekeeping, which it saw as a thinly-veiled disguise for imperialist intervention. Since then, China has evolved into a peacekeeper that commands the resources, experience, technology and political will to make significant contributions to peacekeeping.
At the end of 2018, Beijing had more than 2,500 peacekeepers in the field, making it the largest contributor among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. It contributed 10.25% to the U.N. peacekeeping budget (the second largest contribution of all member states) and it was participating in nine peacekeeping operations, including Mali, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, and Darfur.
China has also registered with the U.N. a standing peacekeeping force of 8,000 troops, consisting of infantry units, field hospitals and various enabling units such a engineers and transportation units. Overall, the country is clearly committed to answer the U.N.’s call for well-equipped, well-trained units.
What has been China’s motivation in this field? One explanation often heard is Chinese hunger for African natural resources. This is demonstrably false. China dispatches its peacekeepers to places where the U.N. needs them. There is no pattern which suggests that resource-rich countries are more likely to receive a Chinese contingent than those that are resource-poor.
The main motivation appears to be reputational gain. Supporting international peacekeeping has given China the opportunity to build an image as a responsible power, ready to assume international responsibilities in line with its economic power, and as a peer of other great powers.
Another reason lies in China’s interest in strengthening multilateralism and the U.N. system. In Beijing’s view, a marginalized U.N. would mean more unilateralism by the U.S. and its allies. By increasing its contributions to U.N. peacekeeping, China hopes to help strengthen the U.N. as the only legitimate source of authority for international peace and security.
Finally, and as a welcome side-effect, participation in peacekeeping allows the People’s Liberation Army to gain operational exposure and test new equipment.
China is not likely to reduce its commitment to peacekeeping anytime soon, and its weight will increase by default because other major powers, including the U.S., are seeking to reduce spending. This may challenge Western-dominated concepts of peace and peacebuilding, in two ways.
The first is the role of human rights in peacekeeping missions. Many observers at the U.N. have noted recent efforts by China (together with Russia) to curb human rights positions within U.N. peace operations. Simultaneously, China has begun to promote its own concept of human rights in the U.N. Council for Human Rights.
In June 2017, it proposed its first-ever resolution, entitled: « The contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights. » The resolution called for « all countries to realize people-centered development of the people, by the people and for the people… as it is conducive to the overall enjoyment of human rights. »
This notion of human rights focuses on collective rights to material subsistence and economic development, and is at odds with the Western conception of individual civic and political human rights.
China’s approach may also challenge Western-dominated concepts of peace and peacebuilding. Given its own historical experiences, the Western « liberal » peace, with its emphasis on democracy, good governance and a strong civil society, does not resonate with Chinese thinking. A Chinese narrative juxtaposes the « liberal » peace with the notion of a « developmental » peace.
Developmental peace prioritizes economic development, supports gradual change, emphasizes strong government, substitutes values-based good governance with results-based effective governance, and seeks to promote this model not by imposing it but by incentivizing imitation and learning.
What does China’s ascent as a peacekeeper mean for the international community in general, and for Western peacekeeping powers in particular? First, supporters of U.N. peacekeeping should acknowledge the China’s significant contribution to peacekeeping in a multilateral setting — the U.N.’s most fundamental objective.
Second, it is useful to remember that there is no distinct Chinese or Western position on most of the burning questions facing U.N. peacekeeping — how to best protect civilians in war zones; finding the right balance between robust posture and political discussions; and defining the role of regional organizations such as the African Union. Rather, there is a constant need to develop shared understanding, and to translate that into effective policies supported by the international community. The only place where this can happen is the U.N.
Third, Chinese attempts to curb human rights positions within U.N. peacekeeping structures should be resisted. China (and Russia) have used the budgetary process to try to curb human right positions, so supporters of human rights could push back by making more resources available. But they should also try to engage China in a debate about human rights in the context of peacekeeping, forcing both camps to explain and justify their positions.
Finally, academics and practitioners should engage critically with the Chinese « peace-through-development » approach. For now, it is unclear what practices such a model would inspire. For example, how could economic development take root in a county where state capacity is low, elites are fragmented, societies are divided and violence rampant? How can we build viable state structures under such conditions, even if those structures are authoritarian? It will be interesting to observe how Chinese thinking on peacebuilding will crystallize once the concepts « hit the ground » in places like Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.
At the same time, few would claim unqualified success for Western-led peace and state building in fragile countries. China’s challenge to old paradigms is thus welcome. At the very least, it opens the door for discussions where Chinese and Western practitioners and academics can engage directly with each other.
Christoph Zuercher is a professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. This article is based on a January 2019 report, « 30 Years of Chinese Peacekeeping, » funded by the China Policy Center and the Center for International Studies at the University of Ottawa.
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