China Filling Void Left by West in U.N. Peacekeeping

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By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 24, 2006

UNITED NATIONS -- When African nations began urging the deployment of peacekeepers to Somalia in June to prop up its embattled government, an unlikely nation stepped forward to support their call for action: China, which had long been wary of such interventions by the United Nations.

China's emergence as an economic superpower has forced the government to rethink some of its foreign policy priorities, and it is quietly extending its influence on the world stage through the support of international peacekeeping operations.

China is now the 13th-largest contributor of U.N. peacekeepers, providing 1,648 troops, police and military observers to 10 nations, mostly in African countries, including Congo, Liberia and southern Sudan. But its activities reach well beyond Africa.

Chinese riot police have been sent to Haiti to quell unrest. Earlier this month, Beijing offered to send 1,000 peacekeepers to southern Lebanon to help enforce a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah. The United Nations accepted less than half.

Wang Guangya, China's U.N. ambassador, said that China is filling a vacuum left by the West. "The major powers are withdrawing from the peacekeeping role," he said. "That role is being played more by small countries. China felt it is the right time for us to fill this vacuum. We want to play our role."

China's participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions has generally served to bolster its relationship with Washington and other Western governments. In some cases, though, the higher profile has led to strains, such as when the United States blocked China's call for condemnation of an Israeli strike that killed four unarmed U.N. military observers, including a Chinese national.

"China has had global leadership thrust upon it," said Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She said China's new role has forced the government to counter the perception that it is interested only in exploiting resources in places such as Africa. "It has a number of reputational risks. Being seen as a force for peace and security is an important and good first step."

Edward Luck, a Columbia University historian who studies the United Nations, said: "If they're going to be the next superpower, they have to be pretty active on these kinds of things."

China's misgivings about U.N. peacekeeping date to the 1950-1953 Korean War, when a U.N. force, led by the United States, marched to the Chinese border and clashed with troops there. The U.S. commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, even considered a nuclear strike to deter Mao Zedong's Red Army.

When Communist China joined the United Nations in 1971, it refused to fund U.N. peacekeeping operations for a decade and remained wary of engaging in council discussions on the topic. "They were mostly silent for about 10 years," said Brian Urquhart, a retired U.N. official who helped create the world body's peacekeeping efforts and who sought to persuade China to participate in peacekeeping in the 1980s. "They sat on every fence available."

After the Cold War, Beijing decided to send small contingents of military engineers and observers to serve in U.N. missions in Cambodia and Kuwait. But it would be another decade before China began to expand significantly its participation in U.N. missions.

Today, Africa is a "bellwether" for Chinese attitudes on intervention, Luck said.


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