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China’s pragmatic approach to UN peacekeeping

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Learn more about Global ChinaChina’s involvement in United Nations peacekeeping is one of its better-known investments in the multilateral system.1 But its contributions to blue helmet missions remain limited, and Beijing has taken a cautious approach to expanding its commitments. In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping impressed other leaders at the U.N. General Assembly with an offer of 8,000 troops to reinforce the organization’s operations.2 As of June 30 of this year, there are 2,534 Chinese soldiers and police deployed with the U.N. This is 500 hundred fewer than when Xi made his pledge, and only just enough to secure its place among the top ten U.N. personnel contributors (Figure 1).3

Source: U.N. Peacekeeping4

This figure is nonetheless more than double the combined total of personnel on U.N. missions from the other permanent members of the Security Council (the United States has just 29 soldiers and police serving with the U.N.). Beijing is also the second biggest financial contributor to the U.N. peacekeeping budget, now roughly $6 billion a year, covering 15% of costs. This is well behind the U.S., which is on the hook for 28% of the budget. But China’s status as P5 power, major funder, and (at least by P5 standards) significant personnel contributor to the U.N. is unique.

Some Western diplomats and analysts worry that China wants to reshape peacekeeping, reducing the U.N.’s focus on supporting human rights and democratic processes — which the Security Council has regularly inserted into mission mandates since end of the Cold War — and use blue helmet missions to prop up pro-Beijing leaders in Africa. The evidence for this is mixed. Beijing is wary of deploying large numbers of troops to high-risk theaters. In contrast to its frequent rows in the Security Council with the U.S. over Syria, it prefers to look for consensus on peacekeeping-related issues. This primer argues that while China does want to gain greater influence over U.N. operations, its overall attitude to blue helmet missions remains cautious.

China’s interests in peacekeeping

Although China first seconded military observers to a U.N. mission in 1990, it only began to deploy significant numbers of personnel to blue helmet missions on a regular basis at the start of this century (Figure 2).5 Its initial contributions tended to involve specialized units including police, engineers, and field hospitals. It deployed a full infantry battalion with the U.N. for the first time in 2015, in South Sudan, but has not sent any other large contingent on another mission to date. In the wake of Xi’s 2015 pledge, however, U.N. officials have worked with their Chinese counterparts to prepare a wider array of rapid reaction capabilities, including helicopters. China has opened a logistics base in Djibouti, in part to support its peacekeepers in Africa.6

Source: U.N. Peacekeeping7

Beijing has multiple reasons for working with the U.N.8 The simplest is good publicity: Chinese media and officials portray these deployments as proof of the country’s commitment to multilateralism. U.N. deployments also allow People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel a chance to gain operational experience abroad; to help them get the most out of this experience, China has set up two training centers (one near Beijing, the other on Hainan) to prepare its personnel for U.N. service.9 Peacekeeping postings may also give the PLA opportunities to gather intelligence on other U.N. units and the countries where they are deployed (conversely, Chinese peacekeepers also offer intelligence targets for other powers who might otherwise struggle to see the PLA up close).10

Beijing has also framed peacekeeping as a rare area for multilateral cooperation with Washington at a time when relations between the two powers are deteriorating across much of the U.N. system. Xi made his 2015 pledge as part of a leaders’ summit at the U.N. hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama to persuade more nations to help bolster the U.N.’s peacekeeping capabilities. While the Donald Trump administration is skeptical towards U.N. peacekeeping, Bo Zhou, a Chinese defense official and commentator on international affairs, argued in Foreign Affairs in 2017 that “more cooperation between the two countries on peacekeeping would contribute to stability [in Africa], improving the world’s most important bilateral relationship at the same time.”11

Peacekeeping deployments also fit with China’s investments, and growing influence in, Africa, where more than four-fifths of all U.N. peacekeepers are currently deployed. Of the 2,538 U.N. personnel now on U.N. missions, over 1,000 are in South Sudan, where Beijing has energy interests (Figure 3). Another 1,000 are spread across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, and Sudan (the only significant Chinese peacekeeping deployment outside Africa is in Lebanon). Chinese officials have linked their deployments to the need to protect the country’s citizens and investments in Africa in talks with U.N. officials, although most Chinese contingents lack the heft and mobility to guard or evacuate large numbers of civilians.12

Figure 3: Chinese U.N. peacekeeping deployments by country, June 30, 2020

South Sudan 1,072
Mali 426
Lebanon 419
Sudan (Darfur) 370
Democratic Republic of Congo 226
Other 21

Source: U.N. Peacekeeping13

Chinese priorities and concerns

Chinese officials are increasingly active in debates about peacekeeping policy in New York, as they are in discussions of development and other U.N. issues. At times, they challenge basic norms of U.N. missions, such as their focus on human rights. At others, they appear more focused on practical matters — such as advancing candidates for senior peacekeeping positions and, especially, ensuring peacekeepers’ safety. Questions about how to make missions more effective have not seemed to be a major focus.

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One of China’s priorities is securing senior political and peacekeeping posts for Chinese nominees.  While Beijing has placed its candidates at the head of a number of U.N. agencies, such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation, it has filled fewer peacekeeping-related posts. To date, Chinese officers have commanded the U.N. missions in Cyprus and Western Sahara, both relatively small and militarily low-risk enterprises. No Chinese official has acted as a special representative of the secretary-general (SRSG), or civilian head, of a U.N. peacekeeping operation. In early 2019, Secretary-General António Guterres appointed a Chinese diplomat, Huang Xia, as his special envoy for Africa’s Great Lakes region. This was the first time that one of Beijing’s nominees had filled such a high-level U.N. political post, but Xia does not oversee troops or police.

Chinese officials complain, with some justification, that the U.S. and other Western powers lobby against their nominees getting important peacekeeping posts.14 Washington and its allies worry that Chinese officials will prioritize Beijing’s interests, and would also prefer to fill senior U.N. positions with their own nominees. Chinese diplomats also appear to recognize that Beijing has relatively few suitable candidates with the experience in mediation and crisis management to fill these posts. Still, there are a few exceptions. In May 2020, Guterres appointed Guang Cong, a U.N. veteran with experience in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and the Sudans, as the deputy SRSG for the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Looking toward the future, Chinese officials have reached out to U.N. experts in recent years to discuss the skills and training needed for such jobs.15

Despite its ambitions for a greater leadership role, China’s top priority in policy debate in New York often seems to be limiting risks to its peacekeepers.

There are also recurrent rumors in New York that China would like to put one of its nationals at the head of the Department for Peace Operations (DPO), a post that French diplomats have filled since 1996. It is not clear how well-founded this speculation is, and Paris is unlikely to give up the post (which gives it a grip on U.N. missions in Francophone Africa) without a fight.

Despite its ambitions for a greater leadership role, China’s top priority in policy debate in New York often seems to be limiting risks to its peacekeepers. This has been a particular priority since 2016, when PLA peacekeepers were killed in Mali and South Sudan.16 While Beijing commendably did not pull its troops out of either country after these incidents, Chinese personnel in South Sudan have also been accused of failing to protect imperiled aid workers (although many U.N. troop contributors face similar accusations of shying away from danger).17

These incidents appeared to unnerve Chinese officials — who had previously emphasized that their troops would not be actively involved in conflict — and sparked an anguished response on Chinese social media. Beijing funded a U.N. study on improving the security of peacekeepers in 2017, although it may have been surprised when the authors (headed by a Brazilian general) argued U.N. forces should take more risks to counter threats.18

China has since worked with the U.N. secretariat on safety issues and peacekeeping intelligence (largely meaning developing better situational awareness to improve blue helmet security). This March, China tabled a Security Council resolution encouraging the secretary-general and his staff to “continue to take all appropriate measures to enhance the safety and security of peacekeeping personnel,” ranging from improving medical services to giving U.N. forces greater surveillance capacities.19 The council passed this in a hurry as COVID-19 started to disrupt its work. But it was noteworthy both because it is still extremely rare for China to take the lead in drafting Security Council resolutions at all, and because over 40 countries — mainly from Africa, Asia, and Latin America — co-sponsored the initiative. China’s emphasis on security is a potential source of diplomatic credit with counterparts from these regions, which provide the bulk of U.N. forces.

Western diplomats found the Chinese resolution unobjectionable, but observed that it did not refer to peacekeeping priorities such as defending human rights, which the U.S. and its allies often prioritize in peacekeeping mandates. Since 2017, China has tried to use its financial leverage in peacekeeping budget negotiations to cut the number of U.N. human rights officials attached to U.N. missions.20 While Beijing has only succeeded in deleting a handful of these posts, U.N. officials fret that China will take further steps to limit U.N. missions’ support for “liberal” values, including policies to address sexual violence in conflict and protect women’s rights.

Yet China continues to sign on to Security Council mandates including expansive language on U.N. forces’ responsibility to protect civilians, advance human rights, and related priorities. Rosemary Foot, an expert on Beijing’s multilateral diplomacy, notes that U.N. officials have demonstrated “normative resilience and bureaucratic resistance” to Chinese efforts to rewrite the rules of peacekeeping.21 Diplomats contrast China’s willingness to join Russia in vetoing resolutions on Syria with its readiness to compromise over peace operations in Africa.

Overall, while Beijing may dislike some aspects of U.N. peacekeeping, it appears to see greater strategic advantage in cooperating with the U.S. and other Western powers in this field. Equally, while Western diplomats mistrust aspects of China’s engagement in peacekeeping, this does not outweigh their interest in keeping U.N. operations on track.

China and the future of peacekeeping

Even as China gradually works to expand its influence over U.N. operations, the broader peacekeeping landscape is changing. When Beijing first started regularly deploying significant blue helmet contingents in the early 2000s, the Security Council was authorizing a large number of new missions, especially in Africa. The demand for peacekeepers was high and the chance for Beijing to make a mark in this field was clear. Today, overall peacekeeping deployments are shrinking, and some of the U.N.’s biggest post-Cold War operations — such as those in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur — are now heading for closure. With COVID-19-related budget challenges looming, U.N. officials see little likelihood of big new missions coming soon. If U.N. operations do shrink significantly, China’s contribution to the blue helmets may become a less prominent feature of its multilateral diplomacy.

However Beijing’s approach to peacekeeping evolves, it is important to remember that it can ultimately only play a greater role in U.N. missions with the consent of the U.S. and the other veto powers of the Security Council. Chinese officials and generals may gain more senior posts in U.N. operations, but the council will define their mandates. The rules of the U.N. game ensure that Beijing cannot exert authority over U.N. operations unilaterally, meaning that it must tailor its peacekeeping policies to avoid excessive friction with the U.S. and its allies in New York.

While China has developed a significant stake in U.N. peace operations, therefore, a number of factors — most obviously concerns about its personnel’s safety and the need to cooperate with other powers in the Security Council — mean that Beijing has reason to tread carefully in the field. While China has queried some aspects of peace operations, such as their focus on human rights, it has to date refrained from demanding wholesale alterations to U.N. norms to match its ideological preferences. That said, Beijing’s level of engagement in blue helmet missions should not be treated too idealistically as proof of a deep-seated commitment to multilateralism. China’s cautious contribution to peacekeeping looks like a pragmatic attempt to advance its interests through the U.N. system — and a limited opening for the U.S. and other powers to work with Beijing on peace and stability in a period of rising strategic competition.

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