Published 25 Oct 07
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
Pandas in the Heart of Darkness: Chinese Peacekeepers in Africa
American policy makers and analysts as well as American businesses and non-governmental organizations are acquainted with the fact, reported in this column, that the People's Republic of China (PRC) is pursuing a long-term strategy of staking out natural resources, business opportunities, diplomatic initiatives, and strategic partnerships across Africa a point driven home by President Hu Jintao's twelve-day, eight-nation tour of Africa this past February, the third since he took office in 2003, which was likewise chronicled in this space. In furtherance of this foreign policy agenda as well as to satisfy domestic interests, the PRC has engaged in everything from controversial arms transfers to despotic regimes like those in Sudan and Zimbabwe to environmentally destructive (and conflict-fueling) petroleum extraction practices like those employed in South Sudan to signing questionable new oil deals with dodgy entities like the so-called Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. One instrument of Chinese influence in Africa, however, has largely escaped notice in United States policy circles: the increased participation of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in United Nations peacekeeping missions on the continent.
Photos by J. Peter Pham
When, in 1971, they were first admitted to the UN to assume the place occupied since the organization's founding by the Republic of China, the authorities in Beijing took a dim view of the blue-helmeted peacekeepers, convinced that the missions the latter undertook were a threat to the right of sovereign states to manage their own internal affairs without the interference of outsiders a view undoubtedly colored by the mainland communist regime's difficulties with its own restive subjects in Tibet and Xinjiang. However, in 1989, the PRC joined other permanent members of the Security Council in contributing some personnel to the UN Transitional Assistance Group (UNTAG) which oversaw the transition of South-West Africa to independence as Namibia.
Since then, China has become increasingly involved in UN peacekeeping and, were it not for the deployment last year of more than 1,500 French troops to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) following Israel's war against Hezbollah, the PLA's contribution of personnel to UN stability and security operations would exceed the combined total of the other four permanent members of the Security Council. According to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), as of the end of September, the PRC has deployed 1,811 military and civilian personnel on twelve UN missions. In comparison, France has 1,950 people on twelve missions (although 1,587 of them are concentrated in UNIFIL); the United Kingdom has 365 on ten missions; the United States has 307 on seven missions; and the Russian Federation has 291 on twelve missions. (Of course, in fairness it should be acknowledged DPKO, not surprisingly, doesn't that nearly a quarter of the bill for anything the UN does is paid by American taxpayers.)
What is most interesting is that the majority of Chinese peacekeepers are deployed in Africa. Currently 1,300 PLA personnel that is, three-fourths of all those assigned to peacekeeping duties, are involved in seven African missions: the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC), the UN Integrated Office in Sierra Leone (UNIOSIL), the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), and the UN Mission in Cτte d'Ivoire (UNOCI). (These numbers do not include other Chinese armed forces in Africa. For example, a report prepared last year by the Eurasia Group for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission that "armed Chinese security personnel are routinely present at key oil facilities in Sudan" which hosts "between 5,000 and 10,000 Chinese workers, some of them decommissioned People's Liberation Army soldiers charged with protecting China's investments." Other sources suggest that the number of these out-of-uniform troops is somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000.)
That Chinese officers and troops are involved in "peacekeeping" between Ethiopia and Eritrea and in Sudan is not without its ironies: as I observed three weeks ago, the mounting tensions between the Addis Ababa and Asmara comes both as both governments are armed to the teeth thanks, in no small part, to the estimated $1 billion in arms sold to both of them by the PRC; in Sudan, as I reported here two weeks ago, the peace agreement between the Khartoum regime and South Sudan is coming unhinged in part due the important political and military cover provided to the former by the PRC which, in addition to consuming of nearly four-fifths of Sudan's oil production and having the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) own 40 percent of Sudan's Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, sells sold Sudan's President Umar al-Bashir weapons for his military.
In addition to fielding forces as part of all seven of the current UN missions in Africa and, undoubtedly, eventually playing a role in African Union/United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) that is to be stood up under Security Council Resolution 1769 mainland Chinas has also been involved in past international missions in Namibia (UNTAG, 1989-1990), Mozambique (ONUMOZ, 1993-1994), Liberia (UNOMIL, 1993-1997), Burundi (ONUB, 2004), and Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL, 1998-1999; UNAMSIL, 1999-2005).
The role of the PLA in peacekeeping, especially in Africa, follows the strategic guidance given to the Chinese military by the regime in Beijing. The official military doctrine, captured in China's National Defense in 2004, in unique among the major powers in that it explicitly references the country's participation in UN peacekeeping back to the UNTAG mission and declared:
China has consistently supported and actively participated in the peacekeeping operations that are consistent with the spirit of the UN Charter. It maintains that the UN peacekeeping operations should abide by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and other universally recognized principles governing peacekeeping operations. China will continue to support the reform of the UN peacekeeping missions, hoping to further strengthen the UN capability in preserving peace.
China's Africa Policy, the first-ever official government paper elaborating the PRC's strategy towards the continent which was released in January 2006 ahead of then-Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing's tour of six African countries, pledged that Beijing would "urge the UN Security Council to pay attention to and help resolve regional conflicts in Africa" and "continue its support to and participation in UN peacekeeping operations in Africa."
While the pursuit of natural resources, commercial opportunities, and political openings across Africa by China's businessmen and diplomats is understandable, what does the country gain from committing its military personnel to multiple often-thankless and usually-uncomfortable billets with UN peacekeeping operations? The fact that U.S. military planners and political leaders need to appreciate is that, while American forces bedeviled by the legacy of the Somalia debacle and the fallout in civilian Washington after the Battle of Mogadishu, especially as seared into popular imagination by the film Black Hawk Down have largely abstained from the international interventions in Africa, the PLA has accrued significant tactical, operational, and strategic advantages from its engagements across the dark continent.
As one article in Military Review, the U.S. Army's professional journal, noted succinctly a few years ago: "Lectures and case studies cannot substitute for experience" because "experience-based training is the most effective method for acquiring action-based skills." Because their tours of duty on African peacekeeping missions vary from between six to twelve months, the PLA is able to cycle more than 2,000 officers and soldiers through Africa annually. And because these forces are drawn from only a handful of select units, officers often deploy to Africa several times during their careers, potentially achieving a level of tactical and operational knowledge that is matched by only a few of the America military's foreign area officers (FAOs) specializing in Sub-Saharan Africa. Senior Chinese officers who have led PLA companies seconded to peacekeeping operations or who have headed multinational units in Africa have acquired knowledge about command in a theatre that very few non-Africans have leadership experience in since the end of the Cold War.
At a strategic level, China's avid participation in UN peacekeeping in Africa not only pays immediate political dividends for its diplomatic efforts on the continent to cite just one example, the PRC's dispatch of engineering and medical units to UNMIL came with the requirement that the transitional government in Liberia sever its diplomatic links with the Republic of China on Taiwan but also helps to secure its numerous investments across Africa by providing security and stability. It should be kept in mind that PLA units serving under UN command are, first and foremost, Chinese units always proudly, sometimes predominantly, identifying themselves as representatives of the PRC, even when they are supporting a multinational effort. In the intermediate term, military-to-military ties are forged between the PLA and the African militaries which are among the largest contributors to UN peacekeeping operations worldwide, not just in Africa, including Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Ethiopia, Morocco, Benin, South Africa, and Kenya all of whom currently have at least 1,000 troops in blue helmets. Moreover, over the long-term, the military commitment, when coupled with the $3 billion in preferential loans and expanded aid over the next three years for Africa announced this year on top of the $3 billion in loans and $2 billion in export credits offered last year, gives Beijing significant clout among the fifty-three African states who constitute the largest regional bloc at the UN and other international organizations.
Among the advanced questions posed last month to Army General William E. "Kip" Ward by the Senate Armed Services Committee as it examined his nomination to be the first commander of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) was the query about "what effect has China's engagement with African militaries had on those militaries and on U.S. Security interests." The subsequently-confirmed head of America's newest unified combatant command which achieved its "initial operating capacity" as a subordinate component of the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) on the first day of this month and will become fully independent by October 1, 2008 responded with appropriately diplomatic optimism:
China's military involvement on the African continent includes military education and training in China, military sales to African countries to gain access to markets and resources, and roughly 1300 peacekeepers that support all seven UN Peacekeeping Operations (PKO) in Africa. To date, China's military involvement has not had any discernable impact on U.S. security interests in Africa. Addition of new Chinese military equipment may pose unforeseen future interoperability challenges.
Unfortunately, given both Beijing's overall strategic calculus and the particular modus operandi of the regime's significant inroads into Africa, it seems increasingly likely that interoperability of equipment may be the least of the challenges General Ward and his successors will face in the years ahead.
J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.
© 2007 J. Peter Pham
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