China Takes a Peacekeeping Risk in Mali

Chinese peacekeepers in Mali
The first Chinese contingent to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali arrived in the capital of Bamako in December 2013, and met the force commander of the mission, Gen. Jean Bosco Kazura. The soldiers will handle medical, engineering and protection duties in Gao. FRED FATH/Minusma

China has dipped a big toe in peacekeeping waters by sending its first-ever infantry troops to work for a United Nations mission — in this case, Mali, where a mission was set up last summer to stabilize the country after a military coup in 2012 and a French military intervention against Islamic extremists in early 2013. The UN mission is authorized to employ 12,640 peacekeepers, but it is working with about half that number now.

China, which espouses national sovereignty above all other policy priorities at the UN, has about 2,200 peacekeepers deployed in UN operations worldwide and contributes more troops than the four other permanent Security Council members combined — Britain, France, Russia and the United States. Russia contributes the least of the P5.

China’s sending infantry troops to Mali poses some risk, as insurgents continue to stage ambushes in the north, where the Chinese peacekeepers are stationed in Gao, along with troops from Ivory Coast, Netherlands, Niger and Senegal. The Mali Army and the French military are also based in Gao, where Minusma has installed a logistics operation. (Minusma is the French acronym for the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali.)

A total of 395 Chinese peacekeepers deployed in January to Gao, where 155 engineers are building a UN “supercamp,” as the UN called it, to house all the regional offices of the world body. The camp’s security will be handled by the Chinese infantry unit — 170 soldiers. The remaining 70 troops are finishing construction of a hospital in Gao to provide medical care to Minusma personnel; it will also be used as a base for the medical evacuation team.

The Chinese peacekeepers come from the Shenyang Military Area Command and the 211 Hospital of the People’s Liberation Army. China has the world’s largest military, with about 2.3 million personnel.

The UN has been trying for years to persuade China to donate more peacekeepers, and one UN official suggested recently that Hervé Ladsous, the peacekeeping department chief, managed to get the Chinese to finally dispatch infantry units to Mali because he speaks Chinese, having been an ambassador of France to China.

“The quick deployment of Chinese peacekeepers in Mali shows, undoubtedly, the willingness of the Chinese Government to have an increasingly active role in UN peacekeeping missions,” Ladsous said in a statement to PassBlue, adding that Chinese peacekeepers are already working in several missions, including Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lebanon, Darfur and South Sudan. (It has also worked in Haiti.)

Throughout its role in UN peacekeeping history, China’s troops have primarily performed nonmilitary operations, like rebuilding bridges and providing supplies to the countries where it serves. In the Liberian mission, for example, China supplied the trademark blue helmets to peacekeepers there. (In 2003, China also pushed the Liberian government to switch its allegiance from Taiwan to China by threatening to veto the mandate of the UN mission in Liberia.)

In the last decade, China has increased its deployment of uniformed personnel to UN peacekeeping twentyfold, sending not only engineers but also military and transportation experts, police and medical staff to missions — mostly in Africa.

“Certainly we’ve seen an increase in general Chinese troop and police contributions to UN peacekeeping since 2003 — mainly in Africa,” Adam C. Smith told PassBlue. Smith is a senior fellow at the International Peace Institute, a nonprofit center located across the street from the UN in New York. “In some ways, the willingness to start providing infantry is a natural progression for some TCCs” — troop-contributing countries — from “less risky medical and engineering to riskier infantry deployments, but obviously it’s an interesting development coming from China.”

As the largest contributor of peacekeeping troops among the Security Council’s P5, China’s participation “adds legitimacy” to the agency “at a time when UN peacekeeping is overburdened,” Chin-Hao Huang, a researcher at the University of Southern California, wrote in a report published by the International Peace Institute and The Elliott School at George Washington University. 

The other P5 members participate in international peace-making through various means, such as financing. Since the mid-1990s, Smith said, the US, for example, has taken a “division of labor” approach, guarding against “the major threats to its and allies’ interests using its conventional war-fighting armed forces, and other countries can/should/will do the peacekeeping.”

Smith said that in many ways, the US views itself as making large contributions to peacekeeping by paying 28 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget, diplomatically supporting missions and being the largest financer, equipper and trainer of other troop- and police-contributing countries.

Russia’s low level of participation in UN peacekeeping can be attributed, among other reasons, to its perceived need to pay more attention to domestic security and its long-simmering disputes with the West, Alexander Nikitin, a Moscow scholar, wrote in the book “Providing Peacekeepers.”

China is not the only Asian nation to wade into Mali. Cambodia sent its first batch of 309 troops to Minusma this month. The peacekeepers are divided into two groups: those doing airport repairs and maintenance at the Tessalit and Kidal airports in northeastern Mali, and the other responsible for explosive ordnance disposal at Gao.

The arrival of Cambodians reflects a general trend of peacekeeping troops originating from predominately Asian and African nations: at the end of 2012, more than 85 percent of UN peacekeepers were Asian (led by Bangladesh, India and Pakistan) or African (Ghanaian, Nigerian and Rwandan).

One constraint on Chinese peacekeepers is that not enough speak English or French, so contingents must have interpreters in the mix. (Mali’s official language is French.) Although language barriers do not directly affect Chinese troops’ ability to carry out assignments, they tend to keep to themselves and do not interact much with other peacekeeping contingents or with local populations, Huang, the University of Southern California researcher, said in the report.

For now, the Chinese are staying out of Kidal, the most dangerous post of Minusma. There, in an even more remote and harsher region than Gao, French soldiers, part of Opération Serval, and UN peacekeeping troops from Chad, Guinea and Senegal aim to keep restive Tuaregs under control and protect civilians from jihadists infiltrated in the city or lodged in mountains not far off.

The French, who arrived in Mali a year ago to expel extremists from Mali, total about 2,500 troops, but they will be pared to 1,000, Francois Hollande, the president of France, said in January.

China, producing the world’s second-largest economy after the US, ranks sixth in its financial contributions to the UN’s peacekeeping budget, which is separate from the UN’s general budget. The US is the top donor by far, followed by Japan, France, Germany and Britain. Italy is seventh and Russia, eighth.

Close watch is being kept from many corners of the world on China’s financial investments in Africa, though Mali is not among its top recipients of aid — loans, grants, construction development, technical assistance and other activities. In 2011, that prize went to Ghana, at $11.4 billion, followed by Congo and Ethiopia.

China’s official finance commitments totaled about $73 billion over the 2000-2011 period, almost as much as committed by the US, at $83 billion, says a new report from Heidelberg University, whose authors concede that reliable data is scarce on China.

The country is especially interesting to researchers and policymakers because of the perceived scale and opaque quality of its role in poor countries. Western policymakers have accused China of expanding its presence in Africa to secure access to natural resources, subsidize Chinese firms and exports, cement and enlarge political alliances and pursue “economic hegemony,” the Heidelberg report says.

The country counters that its investment in Africa, according to the report, “is based on respecting the will of Africa, listening to the voice of Africa and caring about the concerns of Africa, thus earning the trust of most African countries.”

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