Written by Chin-Hao Huang.

In September 2014, China made an historic announcement that it would send a 700-strong infantry force to South Sudan as part of a UN peacekeeping mission. The decision came just eight months after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sent a motorized infantry brigade to Mali, another historic first in China’s involvement in UN peacekeeping. Previously, China’s troop deployments only involved medical staff, engineers, and police personnel. Why has this shift occurred and what implications can be drawn?

There are three important rationales that can help us understand why China made the shift in its peacekeeping contribution. First, doing so enhances China’s rising international profile. It projects a constructive side to China’s rising status on the global stage. China’s leadership is acutely aware that many countries remain skeptical about the PLA’s military capabilities and the country’s overall strategic intentions. Concerned with its global image, China is thus striving to be more responsive to international expectations, minimize tensions and conflict, and make tangible contributions to international security. UN peacekeeping has been prioritized as one area where China can demonstrate its commitment to “peaceful development” and signal its intention to be a responsible, major power.

Second, there is a degree of normative influence on China’s decision. Its shift in troop deployments is shaped in part by its consideration of striking a better balance between state sovereignty, conflict sensitivity, and human rights. By the late 2000s, a loose international consensus emerged that the UN should take exceptional measures if states are unwilling or unable to fulfill their responsibility to protect their citizens. Although China was a relative newcomer to these debates, the issue has gained a degree of traction within China, with a number of international law scholars and foreign policy experts in China pointing to the changing nature of peacekeeping and the circumstances that warrant a more flexible interpretation and understanding of the principles related to state sovereignty.

If the humanitarian conditions in Mali and South Sudan call for rapid troop deployments with broader mandates, and if there is a strong African-led and international consensus for such intervention, we can expect China to step up to the challenge and respond favorably to more robust troop deployments.

And, third, there are practical benefits for the PLA in deploying infantry battalions. Peacekeeping helps the PLA mobilize resources and prepare for “military operations other than war” (MOOTW). Training and operating alongside other countries’ forces provide invaluable experience that allows Chinese military personnel to improve their responsiveness, coordination of emergency command systems, and ability to carry out MOOTW more effectively. A sustained effort to deploy troops in Africa means PLA forces are gaining greater operational knowledge of different operating environments as well as logistics, ports of debarkation, lines of communication, lines of operation, operational intelligence and local atmospherics. These measures allow the Chinese security forces to display their professionalism and operational competence on the one hand, while also demonstrating PLA forces’ growing deterrent capability on the other.

While it may be true that Chinese peacekeepers are deployed in resource-rich countries like the Sudans, peacekeeper deployments are not necessarily a strategic imperative to access those resources. The broader implication to draw from this policy shift is that over time, the peacekeeping deployment serves China’s economic interests by restoring stability on the ground and by minimizing risks in countries where Chinese state-owned enterprises have made significant investments.  And, as the China-Africa relationship continues to deepen in the years ahead, it is even more critical that China’s bilateral military and political ties with select countries in Africa be better managed to ensure that they complement and reinforce China’s peacekeeping contributions as well as other countries’ efforts to improve the prospects for peace and stability on the continent.

Perhaps the most notable implication behind the shift in Chinese troop deployment is that China has demonstrated its capacity to contribute critically needed material assets and personnel to UN peacekeeping. As the largest UN Security Council P-5 troop-contributing country, and as an important voice from the developing world, its participation in international peacekeeping adds legitimacy and brings critical resources at a time when the UN is overstretched and facing challenges in bringing peacekeeping missions to their full mandated strengths. If China continues on its current trajectory and maintains its level of commitment, peacekeeping could soon become “an area where China stands tall,” as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon put it recently. In short, China’s expanding participation in peacekeeping provides an important and widening window of opportunity for the international community to engage with China more closely on global security issues, to help enlarge (and test) China’s commitment to regional stability, military transparency and confidence building, and to mount more effective multilateral peacekeeping operations in the years ahead.

Chin-Hao Huang is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Southern California and will take up the position as assistant professor in political science at Yale-NUS College in 2015. Image credit: CC by United Nations.