November 24, 2006
Despite Its Misgivings, Nation Is Now 13th-Largest Contributor to Missions as Major Powers Withdraw
By Colum Lynch, Washington Post Staff Writer
UNITED NATIONS -- When African nations began urging the deployment of peacekeepers to Somalia in June to prop up its embattled government, an unlikely nation stepped forward to support their call for action: China, which had long been wary of such interventions by the United Nations.
China's emergence as an economic superpower has forced the government to rethink some of its foreign policy priorities, and it is quietly extending its influence on the world stage through the support of international peacekeeping operations.
China is now the 13th-largest contributor of U.N. peacekeepers, providing 1,648 troops, police and military observers to 10 nations, mostly in African countries, including Congo, Liberia and southern Sudan. But its activities reach well beyond Africa.
Chinese riot police have been sent to Haiti to quell unrest. Earlier this month, Beijing offered to send 1,000 peacekeepers to southern Lebanon to help enforce a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah. The United Nations accepted less than half.
Wang Guangya, China's U.N. ambassador, said that China is filling a vacuum left by the West. "The major powers are withdrawing from the peacekeeping role," he said. "That role is being played more by small countries. China felt it is the right time for us to fill this vacuum. We want to play our role."
China's participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions has generally served to bolster its relationship with Washington and other Western governments. In some cases, though, the higher profile has led to strains, such as when the United States blocked China's call for condemnation of an Israeli strike that killed four unarmed U.N. military observers, including a Chinese national.
"China has had global leadership thrust upon it," said Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She said China's new role has forced the government to counter the perception that it is interested only in exploiting resources in places such as Africa. "It has a number of reputational risks. Being seen as a force for peace and security is an important and good first step."
Edward Luck, a Columbia University historian who studies the United Nations, said: "If they're going to be the next superpower, they have to be pretty active on these kinds of things."
China's misgivings about U.N. peacekeeping date to the 1950-1953 Korean War, when a U.N. force, led by the United States, marched to the Chinese border and clashed with troops there. The U.S. commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, even considered a nuclear strike to deter Mao Zedong's Red Army.
When Communist China joined the United Nations in 1971, it refused to fund U.N. peacekeeping operations for a decade and remained wary of engaging in council discussions on the topic. "They were mostly silent for about 10 years," said Brian Urquhart, a retired U.N. official who helped create the world body's peacekeeping efforts and who sought to persuade China to participate in peacekeeping in the 1980s. "They sat on every fence available."
After the Cold War, Beijing decided to send small contingents of military engineers and observers to serve in U.N. missions in Cambodia and Kuwait. But it would be another decade before China began to expand significantly its participation in U.N. missions.
Today, Africa is a "bellwether" for Chinese attitudes on intervention, Luck said.
Until recently, China's policy on Africa has been largely defined by its desire to prevent Taiwan from making diplomatic inroads in the region and its pursuit of the continent's supply of oil and raw materials to fuel economic growth. It has been criticized as being insensitive to workers' rights, soft on human rights abusers -- including the government of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe -- and an obstacle to U.N. action in Sudan, where it has blocked U.S. efforts to impose economic sanctions on the regime.
But now China is struggling to burnish its reputation in Africa, signing trade deals worth billions, pledging to double foreign assistance by 2009 and promising to cancel the foreign debt of some of the poorest countries. Last week, Wang played a critical role in persuading the Sudanese government to allow an expanded U.N. presence in the Darfur region, where a government-backed militia has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, according to senior U.S. and U.N. officials.
Andrew Natsios, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, praised Wang for securing Khartoum's cooperation. "At critical moments, he intervened in a very helpful and useful way," he said.
During a U.N. Security Council mission to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in June, it was Wang who scolded other diplomats for neglecting Somalia and urged them to support the deployment of peacekeepers. It marked a turning point for Beijing, the first time it had taken the lead in the 15-nation council in promoting foreign intervention to resolve a conflict thousands of miles from its own borders.
"I was reluctant to take this role," said Wang, explaining that African governments had been pushing China to raise the issue in the council. "But there was a lack of interest by the other major powers."
The move faced initial opposition from Britain, which feared that the insertion of foreign troops would contribute to the chaos in Somalia. U.S. officials said they are still studying the situation.
"China wants to be seen on the right side of this issue," said Augustine Mahiga, Tanzania's U.N. ambassador.
Princeton N. Lyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa, said he suspects that China is seeking diplomatic points by supporting important regional allies such as Ethiopia, which has already sent thousands of troops to Somalia to protect the interim government, according to a recent U.N. report on arms smuggling in Somalia. The report of an influx of arms and troops from Ethiopia and Eritrea, which is supporting Somali Islamists, could reignite all-out war between the East African rivals.
Richard Grenell, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, declined to comment on China's role in Somalia but noted that Beijing has shown a heightened interest in Africa. "We are well aware the Chinese are working very hard on African issues," he said.