China’s Push for Normative Change in UN Peacekeeping

United Nations peacekeeping operations (UNPKOs) represent the most visible and tangible symbol of the UN’s core prerogative in maintaining international peace and security. However, like its authorizing body – the UN Security Council (UNSC) – the UN peacekeeping enterprise has, in recent years, come under sharp criticism associated with its failure to bring lasting peace and sufficiently implement its protection of civilian (PoC) mandates in some of its high-profile missions. This situation has ushered in a deepening legitimacy crisis symbolized by recent local mass protests in Mali, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, all calling for the expulsion of UN peacekeepers from the war-torn countries.

As a self-described responsible and peaceful great power, and a significant contributor to UN peacekeeping, China appears to be seizing the moment to push for normative changes in UN peacekeeping practice. Initially suspicious of the UN peacekeeping enterprise after it first became a member-state in 1971, China tentatively engaged in UNPKOs during the late 1980s and has, over time, established itself as a pivotal UN peacekeeping stakeholder. China is the second highest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget, donating approximately 15 percent of the total budget, with the United States (U.S.) donating 28 percent. Also, unlike the other permanent members of the UNSC, China is amongst the top 10 suppliers of uniformed UN peacekeeping personnel, with 2,227 troops and police deployed as of February 2023.

Having demonstrated interest measurable in terms of financial and human resources, China appears to be actively contesting the normative underpinnings of UN peacekeeping practice. While keen on consolidating its position as a key UN peacekeeping stakeholder, Beijing does not adhere to all pillars of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, as well as the 3rd pillar of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle. Unless strictly applied under the confines of the 2005 World Summit Outcome language (paragraphs 138-140), Beijing considers the 3rd pillar in R2P antithetical to its purported principle of non-interference and has expressed concerns that it provides an opening through which R2P can be abused and employed as an instrument of regime change. Also, the uptick in the UN’s deployment of robust stabilization and multidimensional missions in the 2010s, along with China’s perception of the increasing safety challenges facing its peacekeeping personnel precipitated the UNSC’s adoption of the Chinese-sponsored Resolution 2518 (2020) on the “Safety and Security of Peacekeepers”. Beijing followed up on UNSC Resolution 2518 with a White Paper on UNPKOs.

The White Paper and Human Rights

In September 2020, China’s State Council published its first-ever White Paper on UNPKOs. While celebrating the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) contributions to UNPKOs, the White Paper also lays out China’s vision and approach to UN peacekeeping. Remarkably, while the paper mentions China’s contributions in facilitating humanitarian assistance in the context of UNPKOs, along with proposals to improve humanitarian relief efforts, there is no mention of “human rights” in the 24-page document. Also, the document strongly emphasizes the need to “reform” UN peacekeeping and respect the rights of host states to “independently choose social systems and development paths based on their national conditions”. The paper also asserts that the needs of host states should be at the forefront of considerations in the design and renewal of mission mandates. The Chargé d’Affaires to China’s Permanent Mission in the UN, Dai Bing, echoed this perspective in a January 2023 UNSC briefing on Mali, stating that the international community should “respect Mali’s sovereignty and ownership” when providing support. This state-centric perspective arguably represents an effort by Beijing to shift the focus of UNPKOs from democratic and human rights imperatives to missions more oriented towards “regime preservation”.

Arguably, owing to its own insecurities arising from international condemnation directed at its domestic human rights record, China has taken issue with the UN’s human rights agenda in the context of peacekeeping operations. For instance, Beijing has made efforts to cut back on the number of human rights officials attached to UNPKOs. Also, in a key April 2023 UNSC briefing discussing the future of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), China’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Zhang Jun, made remarks on how the international community should ideally work in Mali. In his remarks, he stated that “[s]ome countries spoke of the human rights issue… [a]nd we are not in favor of linking human rights with counterterrorism support and assistance”. Furthermore, to better influence UN peacekeeping policy, China has tried to occupy senior UN peacekeeping political and military positions with its nationals, scoring some success in that endeavor. In 2019, Ambassador Huang Xia was appointed special envoy for hotspot regions in the African Great Lakes Region, the most senior position held by a Chinese national to date in UN security and political affairs.

The Case of FOCAC

China is also aiming to gain international support for its normative convictions on UN peacekeeping by socializing important global south regional institutions via its regional forum diplomacy initiatives. To this end, Beijing’s development, peace, and security partnership with the African Union (AU) – as embodied in the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) – represents a key multilateral avenue through which Beijing seeks to propagate its developmental peace concept and stability preservation focus as viable alternatives, or supplements, to the prevailing but currently imperiled approach to UN peacekeeping. While FOCAC initially focused solely on engaging African states in the area of economic development and poverty reduction, peace and security, especially peacekeeping, has become an important additional pillar of cooperation, notably since the 2018 FOCAC. Beijing’s regional forum diplomacy with the AU and African states through FOCAC, along with its commitments to support the AU’s peace and security capacity, arguably represents an avenue through which it can leverage influence to impact norm change in UN peacekeeping. Especially considering over 80 percent of China’s UN peacekeeping troops are deployed in African UNPKOs, while more than half of the top 20 troop contributors to UNPKOs are African states.

While it is unclear how much further China’s peace and security cooperation with the AU will develop, it is perhaps safe to argue that further institutionalization appears likely. Moreover, the prospects of a more institutionalized China-AU peace and security partnership could conceivably result in more concerted voting and co-sponsoring of UNPKO-related resolutions in the UNSC and UN General Assembly (UNGA). The aforementioned UNSC Resolution 2518 is a case in point. In addition, deeper Sino-AU peace and security cooperation could culminate in future AU-China hybrid peacekeeping operations operating under a developmental peace rubric, normatively diverging from AU-UN and AU-European Union (EU) hybrid peace operations of the past.

Global Clash of Values

The UN’s adoption of “political accompaniments” as a key peacebuilding concept applied in tandem with peacekeeping operations under its Sustaining peace agenda appears to share some innate characteristics with China’s “political settlements” peacekeeping concept. While it is unclear if, and how, China may have directly influenced the UN’s adoption and incorporation of this seemingly closely aligned concept as part of its peacekeeping practice, the bottom line is global security governance institutions like the UN will inevitably get entangled in the global clash of values that characterizes the new era of great power competition led by the U.S. on one hand, and China and Russia on the other.

As the UN and its stakeholders commemorate the International Day of UN Peacekeepers and the 75th anniversary of UN peacekeeping, democratic states need to pay close attention and acknowledge the reality that multilateral peacebuilding entities like the institution of UN peacekeeping will increasingly become targets for usurpation and co-optation as tools to reinforce the ongoing wave of autocratization manifesting around the world. While staying true to the core principles of UN peacekeeping, the international community must urgently enhance the effectiveness of UNPKOs if the UN peacekeeping enterprise is to survive as a legitimate and credible multilateral crisis management tool.