Chinese Peacekeepers in the United Nations Mission to South Sudan in Juba, South Sudan, May 2017. 
Samir Bol / REUTERS

The world’s need for peacekeeping has never been higher. Conflicts have displaced more than 65 million people and are affecting the lives of a record number of others. Yet today, the United Nations’ peacekeeping programs are shrinking, rather than expanding: its peacekeeping mission in Cote d’Ivoire ended in June, its mission in Liberia will end next year, and its 14 other peacekeeping programs are under review by the UN Security Council.

China can help. It is the biggest contributor of peacekeeping troops among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and the second-biggest financial contributor to the UN’s peacekeeping programs. Since September 2015, when Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to increase China’s peacekeeping efforts in a speech at the UN, it has stepped up further. Some 1,100 foreign peacekeepers have already been trained in Beijing, and China plans to train 900 more by 2020. This August, the first contingent of Chinese helicopters arrived in Darfur, a war-torn region in western Sudan. And in September, China registered a peacekeeping standby force of 8,000 troops that the UN can draw on in times of need. Eight hundred fifty of those soldiers will join the UN’s so-called Vanguard Brigade—a rapid-response group that will quickly deploy to conflict zones during crises. (In my role in China’s Ministry of National Defense, I manage the PLA’s multilateral cooperation programs, including those related to peacekeeping.)

By providing the UN with high-quality equipment and manpower, working to make peacekeepers’ mandates more achievable, and helping to train the forces and maintain some of the Chinese-made equipment of troop-contributing countries, China could do more to improve UN peacekeeping. Cooperating with the United States to develop the peacekeeping capacities of some African states, meanwhile, would help improve the Chinese-U.S. relationship and contribute to Africa’s stability.

UN peacekeepers near the Lebanese-Israeli border, September 2015.
Aziz Taher / REUTERS

WHY CHINA SHOULD STEP UP

China has good reason to beef up its peacekeeping commitments. Supporting global governance provides what the country needs most: an image as a responsible nation on a peaceful rise. What is more, two of peacekeeping’s guiding principles—impartiality and the “non-use of force except in self-defense and defense of mandate,” as the UN puts it—resonate with China’s foreign policy and military ethos. Whereas the former aligns with China’s commitment to avoid interfering in the domestic affairs of other states, the latter recalls the classical Chinese strategist Sun Tzu’s axiom that it is best to subdue one’s adversaries without violence. And thanks to its deep resources and major interests in global stability, China has the potential to become a peacekeeping leader.

Because the United States seems likely to scale back its own role at the UN, China’s commitments will be especially important in the years ahead. U.S. President Donald Trump’s call for a $1 billion cut to the United States’ peacekeeping contributions would deal a blow to the world body. That does not mean that China will replace the United States as the UN’s biggest donor. But by supporting peacekeeping further, Beijing can make a difference.

Doing so effectively requires improving not just the quantity but also the quality of UN peacekeeping. First, China could become a consistent source of so-called enabling units—the special forces, engineering, transport, communications, and aviation troops that are essential to peacekeepers’ success. It could also provide more female peacekeepers, who tend to have an easier time working with female civilians, especially in Muslim communities. So far, around 800 Chinese women have served on UN peacekeeping missions, and 60 foreign female peacekeepers have been trained in China.

China and other governments should also try to move peacekeeping missions away from so-called Christmas-tree mandates, or lists of responsibilities that are so extensive that the UN has trouble meeting them. When UN peacekeeping began in 1948, peacekeepers’ only job was to observe a ceasefire between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Since then, the demands on peacekeepers have grown. The UN’s mission in the Central African Republic, for instance, tasks peacekeepers with 11 different responsibilities, from protecting civilians and facilitating humanitarian assistance to supporting justice and the rule of law. The UN should streamline those oversized mandates. It should also do more to improve the intelligence and logistical operations it carries out to support peacekeepers. This could help prevent losses like those suffered by UN troops in Mali and South Sudan in 2016, when three Chinese peacekeepers were killed.

Improving UN peacekeeping requires working not just with the world body but also with other countries. Many of the developing states that are involved in peacekeeping buy Chinese military equipment, partly because it tends to be cheaper than similar products made elsewhere. There are a few ways that this process could become smoother. In 2007, for example, Nepal bought a number of Chinese armored personnel carriers. Instead of shipping them to Nepal, the Nepalese military sent them directly to the Golan Heights, where a number of Nepalese peacekeepers are based; the UN paid for the shipping costs. These types of arrangements can make delivering equipment to peacekeepers cheaper.

U.N. forces in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, December 2010.
Luc Gnago / REUTERS

TRAIN AND MAINTAIN

Much of China’s military assistance goes to Africa, which is also the site of most of the UN’s peacekeeping missions. If African states agree, China could devote more of its own military assistance programs to peacekeeping on the continent. Its delivery of military assistance in support of Burundian and Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia in 2008 set a good precedent. At a conference in Tokyo in August, Chinese officials raised the possibility of setting up a facility in Africa where China could train more African peacekeepers, either on its own or together with troop-contributing African governments. This would be cheaper than training African peacekeepers in China. Beijing could also help maintain African peacekeepers’ Chinese-made equipment.

As for the African Union, its independent peacekeeping missions tend to be undermanned, undertrained, and under-resourced. Since 2010, China has supported the AU’s efforts; in 2015, it pledged to give the AU $100 million to help it establish a standby force and to improve its ability to respond to crises. China and the AU are working together to use that assistance to help AU peacekeepers get better at projecting force and surviving in the field. Next, China should join the European Union and the United States in their own efforts to improve the peacekeeping capacities of African states. In Mali, Chinese commanders supporting the UN’s peacekeeping mission and EU commanders working on their own training program for Malian troops already meet regularly. They could now explore cooperation between EU Battlegroups (battalion-sized forces to which various EU countries contribute) and the Chinese peacekeeping standby force, as some European officials have suggested. Troops from both forces, for instance, could deploy on short notice in response to UN requests.

The Chinese-U.S. relationship is sometimes characterized by competition, but that is less the case in Africa, especially when it comes to military issues. More collaboration between the two countries on peacekeeping would contribute to stability on the continent, improving the world’s most important bilateral relationship at the same time. At the G-20 Summit in Hangzhou in 2016 and during Trump’s recent visit to China, the two countries pledged to achieve just that. Such Chinese-U.S. cooperation could make the world less dangerous and convince more people that Chinese-U.S. relations, however complicated, are not hostile. If Beijing and Washington jointly support peacekeepers in African states—for example, by assisting them with training and equipment—Africans, Americans, and Chinese would all win.

  • ZHOU BO is a Senior Colonel in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Director of the Center for Security Cooperation at the Office for International Military Cooperation in China’s Ministry of National Defense, and an honorary fellow of the PLA’s Academy of Military Science. The views expressed here are his own.
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