China in Mali and the Sudan: A Stepping Stone to Greater Chinese Influence in the UN?

China in Mali and the Sudan: A Stepping Stone to Greater Chinese Influence in the UN?

China is pushing to become a bigger player in UN peacekeeping. Past involvements in conflicts in Mali and Sudan have shown that China is capable and willing to involve its own troops in UN missions. The decreased presence of other major contributors has allowed China to gain more influence within the UN. It is likely that China will capitalise on this, but at what cost?

China Increases Its Commitment to the UN

Since its accession to UN membership in 1971, China has developed an increasingly positive stance towards peacekeeping missions. Between 1999-2002, it participated in the East Timorese crisis, sending in civilian police and liaison officers as part of the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET). In 2009, China overtook France to become the largest supplier of peacekeeping personnel on the UN Security Council.

UN peacekeeping contribution graph

Following the conflict in East Timor, Beijing released its doctrine of peaceful development which merged with China’s former security policy, the New Security Concept (NSC). This promoted three principles to underpin international security operations. The first was an increased focus on mutual and equal cooperation, which rejected unilateralist approaches to security initiatives. The second was the principle of sovereignty which stressed the importance of consent from the acting government in conducting operations. The third was the use of the UN as the main actor in the settlement of disputes. China has often criticised unilateral approaches to security such as NATO interventions in Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2012, for which it has vetoed six Security Council resolutions since the beginning of the civil war in Syria

In 2013, China committed troops to the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in response to the conflict that had broken out between the Bamako government, and the rebel and terrorist factions in the north. Committing combat forces, as well as engineers and civilian police, marked a greater Chinese involvement in peacekeeping missions. 

In 2015, China bolstered UN peacekeeping initiatives further with a commitment of 1,031 blue-helmet peacekeepers consisting of medics, engineers and infantrymen to the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) after fighting resumed in late 2013 in the capital city of Juba between the Dinka and Nuer populations.


Motives Behind Chinese Involvement


China’s increased presence in UN peacekeeping missions can arguably be put down to a number of factors.

The first is that China wants to improve relations with African countries to develop and protect its interests. This is most strongly supported by participation in the UN mission in South Sudan, where China has a specific interest in the natural resources. Furthermore, the fact that UNMISS was China’s largest contribution to peacekeeping efforts to date, highlights an economic motive behind Beijing’s increased activity. This strategy largely resembles Franco-African relations at the end of the Second World War, in which French security was traded for untampered access to resources. Nevertheless, Beijing’s participation in Mali as well as in Darfur, Lebanon, and Haiti, where it has no real economic benefit, serve to weaken this argument substantially. 

The second is that China has undergone an identity shift in recent years which has pushed it to act more internationally: it has become stronger nationally, more active within international organisations and increasingly embedded in the international community. In the 1980s and 1990s China moved away from its goal of domestic and international revolution and focused on development. Today, this emphasis on development has been coupled with China’s image as a rising power. 

Consequently, China wants to shake off its image as a looming threat, especially towards the developing world. Military operations other than war (MOOTW) such as in Mali and Sudan, where it provided medical care, infrastructure repair and personal security, have allowed China to demonstrate its military capacity abroad in a cooperative manner, thus propagating its image as a major power and an attractive economic partner. 

The final factor is China’s opposition to Western style intervention and its resolve to promote the NSC. China’s reactions to NATO interventions in Syria and Libya and its tepid response to French intervention in Mali highlight its opposition to unilateral operations under UN mandates. Furthermore, China’s call for an African regional-based support operation supports its push for greater sovereign solutions and a requirement of consent. Therefore its proactiveness in UN peacekeeping missions could be seen as a means of ensuring a multilateral response to security issues and promoting the NSC.


What Will Happen in the Future?


China has continued to work with the UN to push its objectives by focusing on the securing of senior positions in peacekeeping roles. Although unsuccessful, it has, nonetheless, shown it can lead peacekeeping operations in both Western Africa and Cyprus. Furthermore, with the US vying to reduce its contribution to the UN, China will find itself in a greater position of influence in terms of its financial contribution to the UN. It is almost certain that China will use this to continue to lobby for changes to Western approaches to peacekeeping missions in the UN – in tune with its NSC.

China often feels it is criticised for not taking up its global responsibility. However, as COVID-19 budget restrictions and the closing of missions restrict the impact of Chinese presence on the ground, China might find it easier to reduce its troop contributions without provoking criticism from other states. Already Xi Jinping has provided 500 fewer soldiers and police than he pledged last year. It is just enough to secure China’s place in the top ten personnel contributors to the UN.

Nevertheless, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic it is very probable that other top contributors will have to reduce their troop contributions as well. The IPI predicted that from May last year the UN will have lost 50-70% of its capacity. The worry is that COVID-19 and continued environmental risks are likely to increase instability and the need for peacekeeping missions. With China’s withdrawal, it is likely the UN will find itself even less capable to address challenges  peacekeeping missions less able to face challenges effectively in the coming months.


Categories: China, Security

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