Chinese United Nations (UN) peacekeeping forces march in formation during a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.

Chinese United Nations (UN) peacekeeping forces march in formation during a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. AP / Mark Schiefelbein

What Motivates Chinese Peacekeeping?

China’s unusual status as a top contributor of both funds and troops to the UN's peacekeeping program has stirred suspicion.

Over the last thirty years, China’s involvement in peacekeeping has grown dramatically. In 1990, China provided only five personnel in total to all peacekeeping operations. Just three decades later, China provides the tenth most troops of any country. Beijing now is also the UN peacekeeping program’s second largest funder, providing 15 percent of the program’s overall budget. Although the United States remains the peacekeeping program’s top funder at 28 percent of the program’s budget, the Trump Administration has proposed a 27 percent decrease in U.S. contributions for the 2020 fiscal year. Furthermore, the U.S. ranks eighty-second out of 119 contributing countries with only thirty-one peacekeeping personnel. In fact, China stands alone as a top provider of both human and financial capital to peacekeeping efforts.

There are several potential reasons for countries to participate in peacekeeping. Troops that participate in peacekeeping efforts receive valuable on-the-ground experience. Peacekeeping also can build goodwill between countries, contribute to stable post-conflict relations, and advance a positive image for contributing countries both domestically and around the world.

China’s unusual choice to invest both capital and personnel, however, has created suspicion that Chinese peacekeeping efforts are tied to its economic interests: in other words, China sends peacekeepers primarily to protect its economic assets abroad. And, since representatives from UN member countries negotiate the MOUs to determine “details of the personnel, major equipment and self-sustainment services that the contributing country will provide,” the opportunity exists for China to determine where, when, and how its contributions will be deployed. Notable cases of countries with both Chinese peacekeeping presence and significant Chinese investment, for example, include the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, both of which provide valuable resources to Chinese markets

Yet is this assessment of Chinese motivations accurate? Data from the China Global Investments Tracker and the International Peace Institute can help provide some preliminary insights into whether, in fact, China engages in peacekeeping to advance its trade and investment interests. Between 2012 and 2018, China contributed peacekeeping personnel in thirteen countries. Of these thirteen countries, nine had significant Chinese investment either in the year or three years before Chinese peacekeepers arrived. While causality cannot be asserted, this proportion notes a high correlation between peacekeeper presence and investment. 

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Annual changes in personnel counts and investment flows, however, paint a more nuanced picture. If China were to deploy peacekeepers out of financial interest, it would follow that an increase or decrease in investment would correlate positively with personnel levels. Among the nine countries that received both Chinese peacekeeping personnel and Chinese investment, there were thirty-five observable cases of changes in personnel and investment between years from 2012 to 2018. Four cases (11 percent) had steady relationships in which troop and investment levels remained the same throughout Chinese involvement in the mission. In another three cases (9 percent), a decrease in investment coincided with a decrease in personnel or an increase in investment coincided with an increase in personnel. In all of these cases, overall troop contributions from other countries increased or decreased in the same direction as Chinese troop deployment. Twenty-eight cases (80 percent), however, had relationships where personnel levels did not positively correlate with Chinese investment. On the one hand, China disproportionately has financial interests where it contributes peacekeepers. On the other, there is no consistent relationship between increased or decreased investment positively correlating with peacekeeping presence. 

Chinese peacekeepers tend to be present in countries with significant Chinese investment, but investment levels do not necessarily lead to increased personnel counts. These findings send mixed signals, but suggest that the factors influencing Chinese peacekeeping efforts are more complex than simply investment flows. For its part, the Chinese government has repeatedly asserted that its peacekeeping efforts stem from a desire to contribute to global stability. As Foreign Minister Wang Yi has noted, “China knows full well the value of peace. We will continue to work shoulder to shoulder with other peace-loving nations to give concrete support to UN peacekeeping operations and in particular to African countries. Together, we will make our planet a place of durable peace.”

This piece, first published by the Council on Foreign Relations, is used with permission.