China policy towards United Nations peacekeeping operations

Source : Pixabay – Chickenonline

The participation of states in UN peacekeeping forces is linked to their national interests, particularly in strategic areas (economic, security and political). China development changes in its internal and external policy. In this context, the international system has led to three development in China national identity, foremost of which the transformation from revolutionary identity to an independent identity, and then to a diplomatic identity of great powers with special characteristics.

In this sense, how will the Chinese model play an effective role in the future in UN peacekeeping operations, knowing full well, that the Western model still dominates the UN peacekeeping missions?

I. The identity of Chinese diplomacy with socialist characteristics

Since 1980, the Chinese attitude toward peacekeeping has shifted from non-engagement to cautious engagement, and then to active and constructive engagement. China changes its attitude due to economic interests reasons, for protection of its foreign investments and access to oil resources, to strengthen the image of China as a responsible state.

a- The concept of national identity in international relations

The constructivist[1] school emphasizes the role of intellectual factors, arguing that every state has three basic characteristics in the international community: identity, interests and behaviour. Where identity determines national interests and influences the foreign policy of the state. Essentially, national identity is a kind of social interaction process. Social structures include three components: shared knowledge, material resources, and practices. Social structures are defined by understanding, expectations or knowledge shared by nations. The social world is the realm of human consciousness that consists of ideas, belief and concepts.

The ideal[2] school also dealt with intellectual factors and their role in preserving national identity, as it argues that the structure of society is made up of ideas, and the exchange of knowledge, rather than material factors. While the school of realism[3] and neorealism considers material factors as a basic structure of the international system. The behaviour of a state in an anarchic system is determined by its national capabilities, whether it is through the use of military or economic.

Despite the beliefs, differences among constructivists about the relative importance of local versus international environments, they all emphasized the importance of culture expressed in social norms and understandings. The social and political world is made up of shared beliefs rather than physical entities, which are the cornerstone of constructivist analysis[4].

As Martha Finnemore explains, in his book “ National interests and the international community”, national identity determines national interests according to the criteria of the international community that affect the national identity of the state and national interests. National identity and interests are defined by the rules of the international community. The rules are transmitted to states through international organizations that can decisively influence national guidelines by pushing states to adopt these standards, such as the UN rules[5].

China has focused on material factors to enhance its national identity in the UN for peacekeeping until president Xi Jinping came to power. In the new era, China seeks to strengthen its identity in the UN and the world order through material and intellectual factors. This is evident through the new concepts represented in building a new pattern of international relations, based on cooperation and win-win.

b- Characteristic of Chinese identity

The Chinese general and military strategy Sun Tzu (6th-5th centuries BC), in his influential treatise The Art of War[6], recommends numerous strategies on how and when to simulate and disguise, insisting that war is based on deception: when you are capable, pretend incapacity, when you are active, passivity, if you are close, make your enemy believe that you are far, if far away, that you are close, offer the adversary a lure to make him fall into a trap, simulate disorder and surprise him, pretend to be at a disadvantage and stimulates their arrogance.

Chinese leader Mao Zedong[7] repeatedly recognized the influence that his victory over Chiang Kaishek and the Kuomintang in 1949 had on Sun Tzu’s thinking. His military treatise had a decisive influence on Mao’s writings on guerilla warfare, one of the keys to communist insurgencies that arose all over the world.

At present, China « simulates and disguises ». Deng Xiaoping was one of the most important communist leaders during the time of Mao Zedong, promoter of the Great Leap Forward, the policy that sought to reform the Chinese economy. Separated from the party during the fueled cultural revolution in 1978, after the death of the great helmsman, he introduced capitalist-type economic reforms but maintaining the communist discourse, which has made China in less than forty years a regional leader and great world power.

Today China is considered a worthy competitor to the United States. At least not one so important that Washington pivots its foreign policy from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia Pacific, as the Obama administration began to do. Deng Xiaoping used to say « Hide your strength, wait for your moment. » This is what China has been doing since the 1980s. The Chinese economy has multiplied by 64, maintaining a growth level of 7 to 10% per year.

Regarding military spending, China is the second country in the world, only behind the United States, and certainly the largest in Asia, using 2% of GDP according to official data[8]. Furthermore, according to studies by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), this trend continues to increase. Do not forget the organizations that China has created and the South-South cooperation forums, such as the Shanghai[9] Cooperation Organization, the BRICS[10] Bank, the Chinese Development Bank and the Asian Investment Bank, which could overshadow the international organizations created at the time by the United States and other Western countries, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Deng Xiaoping also reevaluated” the third world theory” and presented it to the United Nations in April 1974. He made it clear in his address to the organization that the population of the third world represents about the quarters of the world’s population, and they are the cornerstone of peace and security in the world, just as the countries of the third world have long suffered from Western colonialism and are looking forward to a peaceful international structure to devote efforts to economic development[11]. Some Chinese academics, such as Wang, have also made clear that China national interests should include sharing international responsibilities, as well as domestic reforms, and safeguarding territorial integrity[12]. In this context, in 1999, former primer minister Zhou Rongji expressed the concept of a “responsible country” and asserted that Beijing is using its growing power as an economic power to contribute to global peace and security. “ it strives to improve its international image as an international player in the international system to reduce the fears and suspicions of  Western powers and its neighbours about the rise of China”.

Thereby, by 2009, China had more than 2000 military and police peacekeepers in peacekeeping operations and had become the participating member with the largest number of peacekeeping forces among the permanent members of the Security Council[13].

II- China new approach on peacekeeping operations

Since the eighteenth national congress of the communist party of China in November 2012, the fifth generation was chosen under the leadership of Xi Jinping, who launched a new concept of national interests. China began to play a role in the international system and seeks to expand its participation in United Nations peacekeeping affairs, by strengthening its general model and the new concepts put forward by Chinese president, such as building a new model of international relations, new international world order and participating in reforming the international system.

a- China role towards peacekeeping missions

China has deployed observers to United Nations peacekeeping operations since the 1990s, but their involvement has been selective in deciding where to deploy its troops. Indeed, between 1990 and 2008, China sent troops to Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Liberia, Sudan, and Lebanon. All of these places have geostrategic importance for China and have valuable natural resources.

Since the beginning of the 2000s, concerned with improving its image as a responsible great power, China has increasingly participated in Peacekeeping missions, especially on the African continent. In 2007, it has been the permanent member of the Security Council that has contributed the most troops to peacekeeping contingents. This figure constitutes one of the main indicators of the new strategy that is being applied in Africa.

The African continent has become the centre of United Nations peacekeeping operations. China has nearly three-quarters of its peacekeeping forces in Africa, and more than 75% of its financial contributions to peacekeeping in Africa. The liberation army forces have witnessed gradual shifts from traditional participation towards peacekeeping operations.

The peaceful rise of China is represented by the “Chinese peace” or “developmental peace” model, which focuses on economic construction, solving development and infrastructure problems, and avoiding wasting resources resulting from political conflicts, and does not care about the type of political and economic system of countries.

Chinese peacekeepers have build roads, bridges, hospitals, civil protection camps, and much of the infrastructure on the African continent. Some peacekeeping mission referred to the practices and concepts proposed by Chinese peacekeeping forces in operational support to missions. For example, the United Nations mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has strengthened the verification standards for equipment practised by the anti-riot squad of the Chinese peacekeeping police in Liberia and has been recognized by the police department of peacekeeping missions.

b- China and development of the concepts of peacekeeping

China has actively participated in United Nations peacekeeping operations, which has undergone remarkable changes at both the operational and methodological levels. The most significant changes, such as the protection of civilians, the use of force, the responsibility to protect and other concepts.

The strong peacekeeping concept: this concept emerged in late 1990 as an alternative to the failures of traditional peacekeeping missions in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia. The Brahimi report was issued, which analyzed the failed experiences of UN peacekeeping operations. The report emphasized the importance of preventive diplomacy in peacekeeping operations and a focus on protecting the mission against attacks by rebel groups in a volatile area.

The concept of protecting civilians: all is a strategy to protect the dignity and safety of mankind in wartime and protect them from regimes that violate international humanitarian law, refugee law and human rights law. The protection of civilians by all necessary means has become a core mission of UN peacekeeping operations and an essential component of many new missions. However, China voted a draft resolution on the Myanmar issue, submitted by the United States and the United Kingdom. Myanmar is a neighbouring country and international intervention raises Beijing concerns about the outbreak of creative chaos in Mayanmar and its impact on the Southern border of China.

The concept of the responsibility to protect: the UN carries out this type of operation in only four cases: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. The concept is based on two principles. The first is that every state bears the responsibility to protect its people. The other, if the state is unable or unwilling to fulfil that responsibility, the international community will bear the responsibility to protect[14].

China also dealt with all missions related to the intervention resolutely after the Libyan experience. China and Russia have objected to several UN Security Council resolutions calling for sanctions against Syria, and have opposed any Western intervention that could lead to change the regime in Syria. From 2010 to 2019, China vetoed nine times against the project to interfere in the Syrian issue.

Stabilisation missions: after the cold war, there was much discussion about the failure of peacekeeping mandates in Liberia to achieve post-conflict stability. Therefore, the policies of the United States and Western powers toward UN peacekeeping have changed from peacebuilding in Liberia and counterinsurgency intervention to stabilisation and counterterrorism.

However, China has not officially expressed its view on the concept of stability operations, but it warms against states that resort to using force and support mandates to achieve respect for state sovereignty, and no interference in internal affairs.

Action for Peacekeeping initiative: in march 2018, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres launched the action for peacekeeping initiative, which calls for a political approach to conflict resolution and the promotion of effective coordination among its members. Mission, improving the safety and security of peacekeepers and coordinating the work of governments and civil society.

The initiative also confirmed the strengthening of communication and cooperation between the Security Council, the United Nations Secretariat and troop-contributing countries, as well as the UN regional organizations and host countries, and the continuation of providing more financial support to peacekeeping operations to ensure adequate resources and equipment focusing on ensuring the safety of peacekeepers and the protection of civilians[15].

China welcomed the initiative and took the opportunity to make some proposals for the reform of the United Nations peacekeeping, namely affirming that the Charter of the United Nations is the cornerstone of peacekeeping operations, respecting the basic principles of international relations sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, and using the force only in self-defence, mandate and prioritize political solutions.

In the end, it can be said that the national identity of the state, is a dynamic process linked to shifts in its national interests, and its internal and external policies. China national interests play a prominent role in determining its national identity and foreign policy.

Mahmoud El Aallaoui, PhD in international relations

[1]Maja Zehfuss, Constructivism in International Relations: The Politics of Reality, CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2002.

[2]Robert M.A.Crawford,  Idealism and Realism in International Relations Beyond the discipline, Routledge, London 2000


[4]Katzenstein, Mary Fainsod, The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics, Columbia University Press, 1996.

[5]Finnemore Martha, “ constructing norms of humanitarian intervention”, the culture of national security: norms and indetity in world politics 153, 1996.

[6]Sun Tzu; Lionel Giles (Translator), The Art of War, The oldest military treatise in the World 1994. 

[7]Daniel Leese, Mao Cult, Rhetoric and Ritual in China’s Cultural Revolution, Ludwig-Maximilians-University, 2011, pp-27-47.

[8]According to data from the Military Balance 2017 published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the United States allocated 604,452 million dollars in 2016, while China barely spent 145,039 million dollars. If the difference in absolute numbers is abysmal, China has without providing official data to the UN since 2014 and the figures are estimates based on what the Chinese government says.  

[9]The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (OCS) is an intergovernmental body, dedicated to cooperation in security, economic and cultural matters, which includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbikistan, India and Pakistan.

[10]The acronym BRICS corresponds to the economic trade association of the five most important emerging economies in the world Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

[11]Speech by Chairman of the Delegation of the People’s Republic of China, Deng Xiaoping, at the special session of the U.N General Assembly.

[12]Wang Yizhou, creative involvement : a new direction in China’s diplomacy, Routledge, 2017.

[13]Yin He, China’s changing policy on UN peacekeeping operations, Stockholm Institute for Security and Development Policy, 2007.

[14]Statement by Ambassador Liu Zhenmin at the plenary session of the General Assembly on the question of Responsibility to protect.(EO/BL).


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