Alexandre Dupont-Sinhsattanak

Defence and International Security Analyst


Why does China engage in UN Peacekeeping?

China has increased its participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations (UN PKOs) for the last three decades. As of May 2021, China was engaging 2,471 peacekeepers, making China the 9th biggest personal contributor[i], and the first one among the five members of the Security Council (UNSC). It contributes to 15.21% of the total UN peacekeeping budget, ranking second behind the United States[ii]. Therefore, what explains this growing engagement in UN peacekeeping? 

To begin with, it’s crucial to comprehend the changes in China’s identity that impacted its policy toward UN PKOs. China is both a great power and a developing power. But far from embarrassing one identity or another, Beijing has developed the concept of “responsible power”: a great power that is committed to other countries’ development and security, while respecting their sovereignty. China has been traditionally an advocate of the non-intervention principle. It has criticized and opposed Western interventions, on the basis that they sought regime change, like in Syria[iii], and has questioned the outcomes of Western-led interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya[iv]. However, its harsh stance from the 1970s has changed, due to its international opening. China no longer contests the importance of certain human rights, but still remains attached to the notion of sovereignty. In many official statements, Chine officials have underlined the importance of the approval by the UN Security Council and the consent from the host state for every intervention[v]. While obtaining the host state consent is a prerequisite, especially as the Chinese domestic audience is attached to this principle[vi], Beijing showed flexibility and helped to obtain the consent of the government in Sudan, South Sudan, the DRC and Syria in the recent years[vii].


Defining itself as a “responsible power” enjoys several benefits. It allows China to create its own conception of peacekeeping, different from Western approaches based on the liberal peace theory. Hence, it puts China in a legitimate position within the international system, which is committed to international security, while not being part of the Western system of values. In fact, it implies a critique of the Western interventionism that has been a feature of the US-led world order[viii]. Being a “responsible power” that supports UN peacekeeping can also blunt criticisms on its growth in defence spending[vix].


China engages in a singular manner in UN PKOs.


Chinese peacekeepers were typically composed of ‘enabler units’, which are forces of high-value capabilities, like police officers, medics or engineers[xi]. However, combat forces were sent in 2012 in South Sudan to protect engineering and medical staff. This was followed in 2013 by the dispatching of combat forces to the MINUSMA in Mali. Since June 2017, China has also deployed a PLA helicopter detachment to Darfur[xii]. These engagements provide a proof of its partial endorsement of the Responsibility to Protect principle[xiii], according to which the international community has a role in protecting people when a state fails to do so. While sending combat troops constituted a shift in Chinese policy, foreign observers have noted that Chinese peacekeepers occupy a passive role, limited to the defence of a UN military camp in Mali for instance. In particular, Chinese peacekeepers are perceived as strongly risk-averse, as they experience domestic pressure when they sustain casualties. Hence, they follow rigorously protocols put in place to prevent any further anger and criticism at home, which also undermine any improvisation in urgent matters[xiv].

As a proof for its will to be further engaged in UN PKOs, China has increasingly called for a more active leadership role. In September 2007, for the first time, a Chinese officer was appointed as force commander in Western Sahara in the MINURSO[xv]. The current Sector East Commander of the MINUSMA, where all the Chinese peacekeepers are located, is also a Chinese officer[xvi]. The domestic audience is also highly receptive to UN PKOs where China has a leadership role[xvii]. Moreover, Xi Jinping pledged in 2015 8,000 Chinese personnel to a peacekeeping standby force, which was one of the largest pledges made by a world leader. In comparison, total contributions pledged by more than 50 states were of 40,000 personnel. The force included a wide range of capabilities, from infantry battalions to transport aircraft. This is also a large jump from the current Chinese commitments, and is a clear signal that China wants to engage more in peacekeeping. This also proves that the People’s Liberal Army (PLA) has increased capabilities to contribute in PKOs, and that the political power seeks to increase the Chinese participation in current or future missions[xviii].

So, what explains this engagement? Many scholars believe that China’s increasing participation in PKOs is driven by realist and pragmatic needs, such as the need to secure natural resources, like oil. Another argument is the promotion of the One China Policy and the need to isolate Taiwan[xix]. Chinese economic interests abroad have also expanded considerably since the 1990s. This is precisely true in Africa. But the major shift occurred with the Libyan crisis in 2011, when China recognized the need to better to protect its citizens. 36,000 of them were evacuated, but the crisis underlined the limits of China’s power projection capabilities[xx]. A naval base in Djibouti – the first of its kind – was established in 2017, with the dual objective to protect Chinese nationals, especially in Africa and in the Middle East, and to support multilateral operations abroad. In particular, it shows the Chinese will to deploy the PLA in Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW), like peacekeeping and anti-piracy[xxi]. Participating in PKOs proves to be a legitimate tool which solves the problem of China’s limited long-range projection capabilities, while being in line with its non-interference rhetoric[xxii]. The Chinese civilian leaders were notably able to impose significant changes on the PLA in order to endorse interventionist missions and to integrate MOOTW in its doctrines[xxiii], which underlines the will from Beijing to be further engaged in UN PKOs. As China hasn’t been engaged in a war since 1979, its military lacks the operational experience necessary to become a first-class army. Hence, participating in PKOs provides several operational benefits: learning from other armies, developing languages and cultural skills, exposing officers to high-risks environments, improving planning skills and providing external validation of unit readiness[xxiv]. 

Overall, in my opinion, Chinese participation in UN PKOs have been successful in regards to the objectives that China aimed for. Yet, one can draw criticisms on Chinese peacekeepers on their perceived risk-averseness, their state-centric approach in peacekeeping and stabilization and the lack of “good governance practices” promotion.


[i] “Troop and police contributors”, United Nations, accessed July 14, 2021, https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/troop-and-police-contributors

[ii] “How are we funded”, United Nations, accessed August 15, 2021, https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/how-we-are-funded

[iii] Courtney J. Fung, “Separating intervention from regime change: China’s diplomatic innovations at the UN Security Council regarding the Syria crisis” The China Quarterly 235 (2018): 693-712.

[iv] Courtney J. Fung “Rhetorical adaptation, normative resistance and international order-making: China’s advancement of the responsibility to protect.” Cooperation and Conflict 55, no. 2 (2020): 193-215.

[v] Catherine Gegout, and Shogo Suzuki, “China, Responsibility to Protect, and the Case of Syria: From Sovereignty Protection to Pragmatism.” Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 26, no. 3 (2020): 379-402.

[vi] Songying Fang and Fanglu Sun. “Gauging Chinese Public Support for China’s Role in Peacekeeping.” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 12, no. 2 (2019): 179-201.

[vii] Yin He, “China rising and its changing policy on UN peacekeeping.” in United Nations peace operations in a changing global order, ed. Cedric de Coning and Mateja Peter (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 256-276.

[vix] Courtney J. Richardson, “A responsible power? China and the UN peacekeeping regime.” International Peacekeeping 18, no. 3 (2011): 286-297.

[x] Courtney J. Fung “What explains China’s deployment to UN peacekeeping operations?.” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific16, no. 3 (2016): 409-441.

[xi] Courtney J. Richardson, “A responsible power? China and the UN peacekeeping regime.” International Peacekeeping 18, no. 3 (2011): 286-297.

[xii] Joel Wuthnow, “PLA Operational Lessons from UN Peacekeeping”, in The PLA Beyond Borders, ed.  Joel Wuthnow, Arthur S. Ding, Phillip C. Saunder, Andrew Scobell and Andrew N.D. Yang (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2021), 235-262.

[xiii] Jean-Pierre Cabestan, “China’s involvement in Africa’s security: The case of China’s participation in the UN mission to stabilize Mali.” The China Quarterly 235 (2018): 713-734.

[xiv] Lina Benabdallah and Daniel Large, “Development, Security, and China’s Evolving Role in Mali” Working Paper No. 2020/40, China Africa Research Initiative, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC. (2020): 1-32.

[xv] Courtney J. Richardson, “A responsible power? China and the UN peacekeeping regime.” International Peacekeeping 18, no. 3 (2011): 286-297.

[xvi] Lina Benabdallah and Daniel Large, “Development, Security, and China’s Evolving Role in Mali” Working Paper No. 2020/40, China Africa Research Initiative, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC. (2020): 1-32.

[xvii] Songying Fang and Fanglu Sun. “Gauging Chinese Public Support for China’s Role in Peacekeeping.” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 12, no. 2 (2019): 179-201.

[xviii] Joel Wuthnow, “PLA Operational Lessons from UN Peacekeeping”, in The PLA Beyond Borders, ed.  Joel Wuthnow, Arthur S. Ding, Phillip C. Saunder, Andrew Scobell and Andrew N.D. Yang (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2021), 235-262.

[xix] Yin He, “China rising and its changing policy on UN peacekeeping.” in United Nations peace operations in a changing global order, ed. Cedric de Coning and Mateja Peter (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 256-276.

[xx] Jean-Pierre Cabestan, “China’s involvement in Africa’s security: The case of China’s participation in the UN mission to stabilize Mali.” The China Quarterly 235 (2018): 713-734.

[xxi] Degang Sun and Yahia H. Zoubir, “Securing China’s ‘Latent Power’: The Dragon’s Anchorage in Djibouti.” Journal of Contemporary China 30, no. 130 (2021): 677-692.

[xxii] Courtney J. Fung, “Providing for global security: implications of China’s combat troop deployment to UN peacekeeping.” Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 25, no. 4 (2019): 509-534.

[xxiii] Andrea Ghiselli, “Civil–military relations and organisational preferences regarding the use of the military in Chinese foreign policy: insights from the debate on MOOTW.” Journal of Strategic Studies 43, no. 3 (2020): 421-442.

[xxiv] Joel Wuthnow, “PLA Operational Lessons from UN Peacekeeping”, in The PLA Beyond Borders, ed.  Joel Wuthnow, Arthur S. Ding, Phillip C. Saunder, Andrew Scobell and Andrew N.D. Yang (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2021), 235-262.

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