As China has projected its economic and military power more widely not only in Asia but also in Africa and to some extent in Latin America, little notice has been paid by the general public to another arena of growing influence: United Nations peacekeeping.
In coming weeks, the Chinese are expected to announce the formation of a deployment-ready police contingent on call for UN service and reveal Beijing’s overall plans for an 8,000-member standby, quick-response force of troops and police. The newly pledged uniformed troops, to stand by in China, include infantry battalions, engineering units and force protection soldiers as well as transport, medical and aviation units. The contingent will fall under the command of the UN.
Details are still being worked out with the UN, according to the Department for Peacekeeping Operations, which has been planning to make UN responses to crises quicker by asking nations to designate troops to be on standby, ready at short notice. It often takes months to put a fully equipped mission on the ground.
Yet attacks in July by South Sudanese soldiers in the capital of Juba, including rapes of South Sudanese women right near a UN civilian camp and Western aid workers at a hotel compound, call into serious question the ability of Chinese peacekeepers to react appropriately to crises. Two Chinese peacekeepers were killed while on duty inside the camp during the violence at the UN site.
The Chinese have a combat battalion in the UN mission in South Sudan, known as Unmiss, but when news of the July 11 attack against Westerners in Juba surfaced this week, it was reported that several quick-reaction forces that included Chinese refused to respond to emergency calls for protection at the Hotel Terrain.
There, apparently drunken South Sudanese soldiers rampaged, killing a local journalist point-blank and hunting through the site for Americans, in particular, to attack. Women and men were separated, said the report from The Associated Press and a witness on NPR, with women gang-raped by the soldiers and men beaten or wounded by gunshot.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, responding to news of the Hotel Terrain attack, announced an independent special investigation to determine the “circumstances surrounding these incidents and to evaluate the Mission’s overall response,” a statement said on July 16.
China has recently overtaken Japan as the second-largest financial contributor to the UN’s 2016-2018 peacekeeping budget, after the United States, whose dues have been set at 28.6 percent of the total costs. In the 2013-2015 budgetary period, China ranked sixth, behind the US, Japan, France, Germany and Britain. Its dues assessment was 6.6 percent of the peacekeeping budget. This year, it jumped to 10.3 percent.
Wang Min, China’s deputy ambassador to the UN, said last December in New York that China was also prepared to pay 7.92 percent of the organization’s regular administrative budget, making it the third-largest contributor among 193 member states, after the US and Japan.
China is now the largest contributor of peacekeeping troops and police among the permanent-five members of the Security Council, the other four being Britain, France, Russia and the US. Among all 135 countries providing troops and police, China ranks eighth, according to the peacekeeping department.
China has a well-trained, mostly educated army with much higher technical and advanced warfare skills than some nations that contribute larger numbers of troops. Hervé Ladsous, the UN under secretary-general who heads the Department for Peacekeeping Operations, has been stressing the need for more advanced technology, particularly intelligence abilities, in peacekeeping to keep up with changes in warfare globally.
When 50 world leaders met at the UN in September 2015 to make pledges to enhance peacekeeping, among the items promised — apart from 40,000 additional troops and police — were more than 40 helicopters, 22 engineering companies, 11 naval and riverine units and 13 field hospitals. Britain is holding a second peacekeeping summit meeting, in London next month, to follow up on the pledges made last year.
The UN has added the use of drones, other surveillance tools and attack helicopters to deal with what military specialists call asymmetric warfare, with contemporary challenges coming not from regular forces but terrorist groups and rebel militias that are elusive and often better armed than peacekeepers. There is also a widely noted need for better human intelligence in the field.
Ladsous said in an interview with PassBlue in November 2014 that peacekeeping has been forced into an entirely new global military environment, with scant tools. He said that the days of believing that “by your sheer presence you deter attacks” are over. Peacekeepers need to be proactive, he said, using mobile communication more effectively and electronic surveillance to track leaders of rebel forces who are constantly on the move or hiding in secret locations.
Besides the combat force in South Sudan, where the Chinese have deployed a helicopter squadron, several thousand Chinese peacekeepers are serving around the world, including in Mali. There, they work primarily as engineers in the north in Gao and generally do not speak French in the Francophone country.
The presence of more uniformed Chinese police officers and troops in peacekeeping is likely to raise questions about whether the men and women, raised in an undemocratic system, will adhere to the required human-rights standards of the UN, which asks countries to train troops and police about treatment of civilians and others in conflict areas before they are deployed.
UN peacekeeping has faced behavior problems in other areas, such as of sexual abuses by troops — African and European — in Africa, and the failure of troop-contributing governments to send home and punish offenders in national courts. The agreement with these governments, in deference to their demands for national sovereignty, do not give the UN legal authority over these soldiers or police.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.