China's come a long way as a UN peacekeeper
Updated: 2007-05-29 07:33

When the Chinese government recently announced that it would send 270 more engineering troops to the Darfur region of Sudan, it probably registered on few observers what a far cry this was from China's earlier position.

Over the years, the country's policy toward UN peacekeeping operations has evolved from "no involvement" to "full participation", as the country's growing understanding of UN peacekeeping operations underwent a fundamental change.

UN peacekeeping operations' achievements, from their start in 1948, constitute a remarkable chapter in the history of the world body. Today the number of UN peacekeeping personnel totals 100,000 throughout the world with an annual budget topping $4.5 billion.

In 1971, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution reuniting China with the world body.

At the time, China maintained considerable political reservations over peacekeeping operations. It believed this kind of mission was of little help in long-lasting resolutions to disturbances.

It saw such operations as doing no more than providing a buffer with small gains at enormous costs. The country maintained this policy toward UN peacekeeping operations until 1988.

Change came in China's foreign policies only after economic reforms achieved remarkable results. The changes were seen in the country's view on UN peacekeeping missions:

First, China realized the UN peacekeeping operations, based on decades of experience, are indeed an important means of maintaining international peace and security. Admittedly, many of the long-standing conflicts cannot be permanently resolved by peacekeeping efforts alone. However, peacekeeping can alleviate crises and provide strong support for developing countries suffering from a lack of allies as well as their own weaknesses.

Second, analysis of peacekeeping operations carried out from 1948 to 2000 showed that a total of 54 missions concerning 52 countries mostly involved developing nations. A total of 22 countries took part in 50 missions or more, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada and the Netherlands. Some developing countries also joined peacekeeping operations, including seven African, six Asian and six Latin American nations. Quite a few commanders of peacekeeping troops were from developing countries.

These facts motivated China to reevaluate its policy toward peacekeeping affairs. The result was China's support of other developing nations' demands over security issues.

Third, as one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, China reassessed its position in the international system and concluded: despite undesirable aspects, the current international order can drive the growth of productivity; it remains a long-term task to build a new international political and economic order; under the current circumstances, China should join other developing countries in pushing the international political and economic order in a more sensible direction. This includes using the UN peacekeeping mechanism.

The first time China took part in a UN peacekeeping mission was 1988. That year China joined the UN Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations (UNSCPO) with the approval of the General Assembly.

In a letter to the UN secretary-general, the Chinese envoy said: "Peacekeeping has become an effective means for the UN to protect international peace and security, which helps reduce regional conflicts and resolve disputes peacefully. China is willing to join other UNSCPO member states in contributing to the peacekeeping efforts."

The move was welcomed by both developing and developed countries. The New York Times commented that it was "an important change in China's foreign policies". The Times of London pointed out that "China has now joined the international community and assumed the key responsibility as expected of a permanent member of the UN Security Council."

Since then China's participation in UN peacekeeping operations has continued to develop in four areas:

First, the geographical range has broadened. China sent military observers to the Middle East for the first time in 1990. In 1992, it dispatched its blue-beret troops to join the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).

The Chinese peacekeepers helped Cambodia rebuild four motorways with a total length of 640 kilometers and constructed 47 new bridges in just two years. They also completed a large number of other infrastructure projects, which cost two soldiers their lives and injured more than a dozen others.

By 2000, China had taken part in 10 peacekeeping operations with 650 personnel working as military observers, liaisons, advisors and staff officers in addition to 800 troops from the People's Liberation Army's engineering corps participating in two missions.

Chinese peacekeepers were involved in the transitional authorities in Namibia, the UN monitoring organization for a truce in the Middle East, the observer group in Iraq and Kuwait, the special group in Western Sahara, the observer group in Mozambique, the observer group in Liberia, the observer group in Sierra Leone and the transitional authorities in East Timor.

Second, the number of China's peacekeepers has grown.

In 2000, heads of state attending the UN Millennium Summit demanded faster deployment of peacekeeping missions. In response, China expanded its involvement.

In 2001, China dispatched a 190-member peacekeeping force to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

That same year, an engineering battalion, two transportation companies and a medical team from China took part in peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo. China sent a second medical team and an engineering company with a total of 280 members to the DRC in 2003.

In 2004 China sent its first contingent of policemen to a UN peacekeeping force. They helped keep the peace in Kosovo. Soon afterwards, at the request of the UN and personally approved by Premier Wen Jiabao, China dispatched a peacekeeping force of 1,000 to Lebanon. The number was later reduced to 300 because the UN believed the local government was not capable of accommodating the larger contingent.

As one of the UN Security Council permanent members, China is among the nations sending the most peacekeeping troops abroad.

Third, China's peacekeeping involvement has been widely hailed by the international community.

Chinese have won praise from the UN and the international community for their humanitarian spirit in working with local residents and their spirit of cooperation with other peacekeeping forces.

Fourth, to improve its performance in future peacekeeping missions, China has established two peacekeeping personnel training facilities. One is in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu Province in East China; the other is in Langfang in Hebei Province, near Beijing.

The training deals with emergency situations, providing logistical supplies, preventing confrontations and living harmoniously with other peacekeeping forces. The personnel also undergo intensive foreign language training.

China's policy change in peacekeeping is based on analysis of the current international situation as well as its sense of mission as a member of the UN Security Council and as "a member, builder and protector" of the United Nations.

The author is a researcher with China Institute of International Studies.

(China Daily 05/29/2007 page11)