In one of the most striking new trends in UN peacekeeping in recent years, China has emerged as one of the United Nations’s largest suppliers of peacekeeping troops.
For a country that once viewed UN intervention as a violation of state sovereignty, its embrace of peacekeeping constitutes an ideological revolution. With close to 2,200 blue helmets around the world today, China contributes as many troops as France.
The UN has welcomed Chinese peacekeepers with open arms. From Haiti to Liberia, even in Darfur, China is supplying desperately needed reinforcements to a UN peacekeeping department that is overstretched to the breaking point.
With 115,000 blue-helmeted troops dispersed around the world and increasingly complex mandates, the UN is grateful for China’s contribution.
“They are very well organized. They have skills, precision, high professional standards. Their camps are very well run and structured, they are disciplined. Of course, this doesn’t hurt, in our peacekeeping missions” said Alain le Roy, the UN peacekeeping chief.
As a rising global power, China wants to project a reassuring image as a responsible country. For now, China’s peacekeepers continue to shy away from combat missions. In Liberia, Chinese troops take care of children or build bridges. In Haiti, they act as policemen.
But China has its critics. Some suspect it is sending its troops to buy cheap publicity, especially in Africa, where their deployment coincides with a huge wave of Chinese investment.
“Whenever there is peace, I think there will be opportunities for investment. So I think this is very important for the business people as well,” admits Zhang Yesui, China's ambassador to the UN.
For now, China ranks 15th among UN troop-contributors, far behind peacekeeping giants such as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh or Nigeria. But at its current rate of expansion, it could soon catch up with them.
Among UN Security Council members, China is already in first place, along with France, and its contribution surpasses that of most Western countries.
“Western countries do not have the money and they do not have the troops to sustain significant peacekeeping outside Afghanistan and the Balkans," said Richard Gowan, from the Center on International Cooperation. "China is taking advantage of that. It's filling the gap and it’s starting to look like a global power, while European countries especially are in retreat."
The UN hopes the Chinese surge will motivate other major players to follow suit. The US, Russia and the UK have all but abandoned UN peacekeeping, giving the impression that it is not a priority.
“In my view, every country with the means to participate should equally contribute to peacekeeping," said Jean-Marie Guéhenno, a former UN peacekeeping chief who is now working for the Brookings Institution. "When it comes to the political credibility of the United Nations, the non-participation of the most powerful countries is a mortal danger.”