China has long adhered to a foreign policy of non-interventionism, where it tries to appear neutral in disputes outside its borders. As the country becomes more of a global power, however, it is less able to stay on the sidelines. China’s role in United Nations peacekeeping missions is changing, and the country may be compelled to play a greater role in peacekeeping policy.
China joined the United Nations in 1971, but it was not until 1990 that Beijing undertook its first peacekeeping foray under the U.N. banner, sending a handful of observers to the Middle East. Since then, Beijing has been a steadfast contributor to the U.N. peacekeeping effort, says Courtney Richardson, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
"The Chinese have experienced dramatic growth in terms of their deployment levels, especially when we realize the international environment that China faces - simultaneously being asked to do more as a developing country, while also... not promoting any negative perception of [a] rising military," said Richardson.
China's appearance of neutrality
In the last 20 years, more than 20,000 members of China’s army and police force have donned the blue beret synonymous with U.N. peacekeeping. Today, about 2,000 Chinese are on active U.N. duty; that's more personnel than are deployed by any other permanent member of the Security Council.
"The Chinese take very seriously this commitment. It’s the only venue that Chinese troops are being deployed abroad. At the same time, I won’t be the first researcher to point out that peacekeeping provides a very useful soft-power tool for China, in the sense that [it] can help promote a positive reputation of the Chinese," said Richardson.
Citing its commitment to non-interventionism, Beijing has never deployed combat troops, even in the midst of humanitarian disasters like Darfur. Instead, China has provided U.N. missions with enabling personnel - engineers, medical staff and police officers - to assist capacity building in countries as far apart as East Timor and Western Sahara.
Marc Lanteigne is research director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Center at Victoria University of Wellington.
"Interestingly enough, if you look at the history of Chinese peacekeeping, its activities have been more in keeping with small-to-medium states who are seen as neutral - able to provide an unbiased, and non-partisan security role in a peacekeeping mission," said Lanteigne.“China really tried to stress that [they] are not interested in pushing ‘our security ideas’, ‘our policies’ on other states; certainly not in the developing world.”
Marked shift with Libya
However, during the recent turmoil in Libya, this long-adhered-to policy evolved. China joined the 14 other members of the U.N. Security Council in supporting non-consensual military action in response to how Gadhafi was treating the Libyan people.
"For China, this was seen as a very significant move. If you support non-consensual military action then this is, of course, at tension with a very strict policy of political non-intervention, non-interference," said Richardson.
Lanteigne suggests that this shift corresponds to China feeling more at ease with the notion of itself as a global power.
"China is now starting to settle into the role of being a great power, and maybe... wanting to look after its own interests to a greater degree," said Lanteigne.
The escalating conflict between Sudan and South Sudan is emerging as a potential case in point. China sources almost one tenth of its national petroleum supply from oil fields controlled by the government in Juba, which are transhipped to China through Port Sudan via a Khartoum-controlled oil pipeline.
China challenged by oil dispute
With Juba halting oil production until Khartoum agrees to a cheaper oil shipment deal - or until it has time to build a new, Chinese-funded pipeline via Kenya - China’s national interests appear increasingly threatened. China has peacekeepers deployed in both Sudan and South Sudan, and is well-placed, therefore, to leverage its soft-power to influence an outcome in the oil crisis.
Ironically, though, China’s status as a world leader with close ties to developing countries, particularly in Africa, may require that it scale back its deployment of troops and instead focus on broader peacekeeping policy.
"It is coming to the point where China is now approaching the same problem that the U.S. and Russia have: They do field peacekeepers, but in very low numbers because there is automatically the perception of bias," said Lanteigne.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon began his second five-year term January First. Marking the occasion, he told Chinese state news agency Xinhua that he expects Beijing to play a "crucially important" role in global peace and development in the future.
From the Korean peninsula that borders China, to the oil fields of Sudan, Beijing might have little choice but to accept such a responsibility in an increasingly partisan manner, despite its best efforts to appear a neutral player in the eyes of every nation.