China’s Potemkin Peacekeeping

Eager to assuage concerns about its growing power and portray itself as a responsible world leader, Beijing used its turn as president of the U.N. Security Council last month to publicize China’s role in U.N. peacekeeping in Africa. Beijing emphasizes that China’s contributions to U.N. peacekeeping are intended to “defend world peace, contribute to global development and safeguard international order.”

In reality, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has used U.N. peacekeeping to cloak and facilitate the mercantilist extraction of natural resources from Africa, while gaining valuable deployment experience for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and attempting to shift international norms in a direction hostile to human rights.

Today, approximately 2,400 Chinese troops serve as part of U.N. peacekeeping missions, and about 85 percent of those troops are in Africa. This represents a sharp increase since 2000, when China contributed fewer than 100 troops in total. 

What explains this significant Chinese interest in U.N. peacekeeping?

Approximately 40 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have joined the CCP’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which Beijing presents as a global campaign of “win-win” investments that provide capital-starved developing countries with needed resources, particularly in infrastructure. But these projects frequently feature endemic corruption and non-transparency that can facilitate the creation of debt and dependency. Over time, China has become Africa’s largest bilateral creditor, with payments to China accounting for nearly 30 percent of Africa’s 2021 debt service. This leverage may lead to concessions such as permission to extract natural resources or control strategic infrastructure such as seaports.

As Beijing’s economic interests in Africa have grown, the CCP has shown an increasing desire to protect those economic interests with military deployments. In fact, Beijing established its first overseas military installation in Djibouti in 2017. China’s military ambitions in Africa, moreover, are not relegated solely to the continent’s east coast. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. military commander responsible for operations in Africa, recently warned that Chinese officials are actively contacting governments on Africa’s Atlantic coast to establish naval facilities.

Augmenting these activities in Africa with U.N. peacekeeping provides Beijing a way to increase its military presence on the continent in a way that seems more benign than it is and may elicit less international concern than it deserves. In addition to helping burnish Beijing’s international reputation, U.N. peacekeeping also provides PLA troops much-needed experience deploying, operating, and sustaining forces far from home—just the kind of expeditionary skills the PLA needs to achieve President Xi Jinping’s vision for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049.

The benefits for Beijing, however, do not stop there. Perhaps most notably, China is using U.N. peacekeeping to protect its growing economic interests in Africa. The approximately 2,000 PLA soldiers conducting peacekeeping in Africa include more than 1,000 in South Sudan, with roughly the same number spread across Mali, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). And it is not by chance that China has robust economic interests in many of these countries.

This connection between Beijing’s economic interests and its U.N. peacekeeping posture is hardly a well-kept secret. In its 2020 report to Congress, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission observed that “Chinese state media and security personnel have documented China’s interest in using peacekeeping forces to directly protect Chinese investments.”

Consider China’s use of U.N. peacekeeping in South Sudan. The commission noted that state-owned “China National Petroleum Corporation controls a 40 percent stake—the largest of any stakeholder—in a consortium that extracts South Sudan’s oil.” Accordingly, Beijing sent its first combat unit to Africa in 2012 to support the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

When a civil war broke out, Beijing brushed aside its traditional talking points about non-intervention in other countries and pushed for more U.N. peacekeepers in South Sudan and a broader U.N. mandate that included the protection of oil workers (not to mention the Chinese-funded oil installations where they work). Chinese negotiators reportedly offered to send 850 more peacekeepers to South Sudan. Understandably, the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations initially opposed the plan. According to Foreign Policy, the United Nations thought it would be “unseemly” to deploy “peacekeepers at the service of a commercial enterprise.” The U.N. was concerned about undermining peacekeeper neutrality given that oil exports accounted for the majority of government revenues in South Sudan.

Ultimately, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and others set aside reservations and adopted the new mandate unanimously based on concerns that additional attacks threatened South Sudan’s economic lifeline. The UNMISS got hundreds of additional peacekeepers and the promise of increased stability. In return, Beijing got additional protection for its oil investments and extractive efforts in South Sudan—protection that came with the U.N. imprimatur and mostly at the financial expense of other member states, including the United States.

Not a bad deal for Beijing.

One can also observe a similar potential confluence between Beijing’s U.N. peacekeeping and mercantilist interests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The U.S.-China commission documents how China Molybdenum, a state-owned mining company, owns “an 80 percent stake in one of the world’s largest cobalt mines and the largest copper mining operation in the DRC.” As of 2017, China owned eight of the 14 largest DRC cobalt mining companies. The Democratic Republic of the Congo produces more than two-thirds of cobalt mined globally. Under U.S. law, the Department of Defense considers both cobalt and copper to be “specialty metals” vital to military operations and equipment.

Beijing appreciates the importance of these minerals, too. For example, it imports almost all the cobalt it refines from the DRC, which hosts more than 230 Chinese peacekeepers.

Notably, the purpose of U.N. peacekeeping is not to facilitate nation-state economic interests or resource extraction. A 2008 document titled United Nations Peacekeeping Operations: Principles and Guidelines defines the intended “nature, scope, and core business” of peacekeeping. In a foreword to the document, then-Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guéhenno noted that peacekeepers perform tasks such as monitoring ceasefires, facilitating national reconciliation, and protecting civilians. He also wrote that peacekeepers “support the organization of elections, protect and promote human rights, and assist in restoring the rule of law.”

“Free and fair elections,” the document states, are “a major milestone towards the establishment of a legitimate State.” These are not ideas the CCP wants to propagate, given that it maintains power at home through force and intimidation rather than elections.

“Human rights,” the U.N. peacekeeping guidelines insist, “are universal and guaranteed to everybody.” Such an assertion—which applies to people in Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang—must really make the CCP see red. A similar suggestion by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in March made their Chinese counterparts visibly upset.

The United Nations also says respecting the rule of law is one of the “core functions” of peacekeeping. And to eliminate any confusion regarding the term, the document defines the rule of law as [emphasis added]:

A principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards.

This is the exact opposite of what we see today in China, where the CCP believes power emanates from the party and not the consent of the governed. Anyone who dares stand up to the CCP in defense of individual rights risks imprisonment or worse. Moreover, the people of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, India, and the Philippines, for example, could be forgiven for asking why Beijing does not adopt the rule-of-law principle closer to home.

Admittedly, Beijing’s domestic policies or foreign policies toward its neighbors are a different thing than China’s approach to U.N. peacekeeping in Africa. But why should anyone expect the CCP to protect liberties for foreigners in Africa that Beijing is unwilling to provide even to its own people? Perhaps that is why China’s U.N. peacekeeping posture appears to focus on protecting Chinese investments and currying favor with governments that facilitate resource extraction.

Now that China funds more than 15 percent of the U.N. peacekeeping budget (up from 4 percent in 2012), one wonders whether the next edition of the document will contain such language in support of elections, human rights, and the rule of law.

This is not a theoretical concern. As China provides more peacekeeping troops and funds, Beijing has already worked to shift norms and policies to bolster its authoritarian and mercantilist interests. According to the New York Times, Beijing pushed in 2018 to eliminate dozens of peacekeeping jobs focused on protecting human rights and preventing sexual abuse. That included efforts to cut eight peacekeeping positions related to human rights in Mali and more than a dozen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While many of these efforts have been blocked by the United States and like-minded countries, Beijing has had some success in cutting human rights positions.

So, what’s the United States to do?

The first step is to recognize that China’s goals are inconsistent with the principles of U.N. peacekeeping. To be sure, not all PLA peacekeeping deployments are necessarily nefarious. But when PLA peacekeepers act contrary to the principles of peacekeeping and focus on Beijing’s narrow national interests rather than on supporting the letter and spirit of the peacekeeping mandate, the United States should push back.

That pushback begins at the United Nations, not in the field. Too often, Beijing has attempted to gut the peacekeeping human rights and accountability architecture. China, with the help of Russia, often seeks to defund these elements during the U.N. Fifth Committee’s budget negotiations. The United States must not forfeit them as bargaining chips. That means ensuring human rights and accountability mechanisms are fully funded in the U.N. peacekeeping budget.

If Washington fails to prevent Beijing from shaping peacekeeping mandates and budgets in a direction more conducive to authoritarian and mercantilist objectives, the United States should unapologetically utilize its U.N. Security Council veto. 

And if Beijing attempts to install CCP officials in key peacekeeping posts, Washington should work tirelessly with like-minded member states to ensure that candidates who support democratic values occupy influential peacekeeping posts instead. Last year, for example, Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Guang Cong as Deputy Special Representative for South Sudan and Deputy Head of UNMISS, a mission where China has a thousand peacekeepers. Given the fact that Cong is charged with overseeing peacekeepers from his home country, one wonders whether he will ensure the PLA conforms to the mandate and UN peacekeeping principles in South Sudan. 

There has certainly been a genuine need for such oversight of PLA peacekeepers in South Sudan. During fighting in Juba in 2016, Chinese peacekeepers reportedly “abandoned their posts entirely.” Rather than courageously protecting vulnerable civilians seeking refuge, the PLA peacekeepers fled, “leaving weapons and ammunition behind.”

If Washington takes these steps, it can help promote peace and security in Africa and prevent the CCP from advancing authoritarian and mercantilist objectives under the guise of UN peacekeeping. 

In an apparently apocryphal tale, 18th-century Russian military leader and statesman Grigory Potemkin created pretentious building facades to conceal from Empress Catherine the Great the shabby and impoverished reality of her subjects.

Today, in Africa, China suggests it supports U.N. peacekeeping to “defend world peace, contribute to global development and safeguard international order.” Observers would be wise to look behind the façade of these Potemkin peacekeeping missions. 

Bradley Bowman serves as senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). A former Army officer, he served from 2017–2019 as national security advisor to Sen. Todd Young, then-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee responsible for the United Nations. Morgan Lorraine Viña is an adjunct fellow at FDD and served as chief of staff and senior policy adviser to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki R. Haley.

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