From Threat to Trust: China's Role in UN Peacekeeping

Despite foolish China-bashing, Sino-Western synergies are real and demonstrate that China's reemergence is profoundly compatible with Western modernity.
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The rise of China does not have to be a divisive factor of the international community -- on the contrary, it can be a catalyst for a more cohesive global village. In the official document published by the Information Office of the State Council in September 2011 entitled "China's Peaceful Development: The Unprecedented Interdependence Between China and the World," is explicitly underlined: "China can not develop itself in isolation from the rest of the world, and global prosperity and stability cannot be maintained without China."

Trade, finance, business or tourism are all areas in which China's global projection is having a considerable impact but Beijing's international peacekeeping effort is one of the most promising forms of the country's opening-up to the world, not well known and fully appreciated outside China, it illustrates the country's willingness to be a globally responsible actor.

When the People's Republic of China joined the United Nations 41 years ago, it looked at the peacekeeping operations with great suspicion. Putting the principle of political sovereignty above other considerations, Maoist China rejected interventions in foreign countries that supposedly contradicted the notions of non-interference and peaceful co-existence.
However, in 1988, while the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the UN peacekeeping system, Beijing entered the special committee on peacekeeping operations. In 1992, China sent its first company of engineers to Cambodia and, 10 years before Beijing entered the World Trade Organization (2001), China's soldiers became an active component of the UN peacekeeping forces.

Last April, two decades after the intervention in Cambodia, a ceremony took place in the Kingdom's Kompong Cham Province to pay tribute to Chen Zhiguo and Yu Shili, two Chinese soldiers who were killed during China's inaugural peacekeeping mission.

Since the deployment in Southeast Asia, China's participation in UN peacekeeping has substantially expanded, 2,000 Chinese "blue helmets" are currently carrying tasks in 12 different missions -- on a total of 15 current peacekeeping operations. During the past 20 years, China participated in more than 20 missions dispatching 20 000 troops and military observers -- since the 1948 United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in the newly created state of Israel there have been a total of 67 UN peacekeeping operations around the world.

It is widely acknowledged that by their professionalism, a sense of inclusiveness and impartiality, the "blue helmets" coming from the Middle Country serve the UN objectives with a unique effectiveness. It is on the African continent that the new China factor could have the most constructive impact, Beijing is not only the continent's number one trading partner (166 billion US dollars two way trade in 2011), but it is also the largest provider of peacekeepers to Africa among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P-5).

When a lack of trust between the Middle Country and the West weakens dangerously the capacity of the international community to tackle crises, Beijing's growing involvement in peacekeeping constitutes a unique opportunity to activate a Sino-Western dialogue on some of the most sensitive security issues.

Fundamentally, a general agreement on the notion that Beijing has to be seen as one of the co-architects of the 21st century peacekeeping doctrine and practice would be a significant progress for the world. Of the UN 17 specialized agencies, none has its headquarters based in China, but it would make great sense to have Beijing as a central node of the international peacekeeping network in an effort to adjust to new global dynamics. The rearrangement of world power implies a new division of responsibilities and a reorganization of the global governance conceived after the Second World War.

Such an ambition would certainly challenge the status quo. Based in the U.S., the useful Peace Operations Training Institute (POTI) does not even have on its 9-member board one Chinese expert while the world's most populous country is the largest contributor of peacekeepers among the P-5. While it is obvious that there can not be any genuine reflection on the improvement of the global governance without a Chinese participation, when, 12 years ago, the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked a group of specialists to assess the shortcomings of the peacekeeping system and to formulate recommendations for change, the Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi chaired a panel in which the Middle Country had no representative.
In 2009, China's defense ministry established in the north of Beijing a UN peacekeeping training center, it could, as a result of a coordinated strategy, not only serve as a platform where international troops train and prepare their specific missions but also stand as an institution where research and teaching on 21st century peacekeeping could be organized.
In the "China threat" narrative, the People's Liberation Army (PLA), portrayed as an antagonistic force, is a source of fear, a sentiment which remains in the words of the Canadian statesman Lester Pearson, "the greatest enemy of peace," but when the Chinese military cooperates with other armies to protect life and to establish the conditions for socio-economic development, it not only contributes to reduce the level of mutual suspicion but it also puts the parties on the path toward strategic trust.

Despite the rhetorical and foolish China-bashing, Sino-Western synergies are real and demonstrate that China's reemergence is profoundly compatible with Western modernity. Last month, while visiting the PLA Engineering Academy of Armored Forces in Beijing, the U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta declared: "China's rise has brought millions out of poverty and helped to make the world a more prosperous place. I believe that it can also make the world a more secure place. If we work together -- if we work together to build an enduring foundation for military-to-military relations between the United States and China -- we can achieve greater prosperity and security in the Asia-Pacific region."

Far to be a threat, a disciplined, responsible and open PLA is as much a source of stability and security than any other Western military force, the most powerful one included.

David Gosset is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), Shanghai, Beijing & Accra, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.

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