Riot police wearing plastic helmets and Terminator-style body armor slashed the air with batons and parried imaginary blows with plexiglass shields. Others thrust out their arms and legs in martial arts training reminiscent of a Jackie Chan movie. At the pistol range, police in black fatigues blasted holes in human silhouettes at 30 yards.
China's Public Security Ministry put a Haiti-bound contingent of specially trained People's Armed Police on display Wednesday, underlining what officials described as Beijing's willingness to play an increasing role in U.N. peacekeeping operations around the world after years of reluctance to get involved.
The new commitment has reinforced a movement by the Chinese government to play a larger role in world affairs, including participating more actively in regional groups such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and quarterbacking six-sided negotiations over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
The 125-member police unit's assignment to Haiti marks a new level of Chinese participation in U.N. peacekeeping, said Tan Jun, who heads the peacekeeping division at the Public Security Ministry. The riot police, who will depart in about two weeks after three months of training, will be the first Chinese police officers to serve as full-blown U.N. peacekeepers and as an integrated unit, with their own commander, logistics and support, Tan said.
"I believe China will make even greater contributions in the future" to U.N. peacekeeping, Tan told a group of foreign reporters invited to the ministry's new peacekeeping training center in suburban Lang Fang, 20 miles southeast of Beijing.
The United States and other Western countries have long urged China to play a bigger role in U.N. peacekeeping, pointing out that the country is a permanent member of the Security Council, is the most-populous country in the world with 1.3 billion people and boasts the largest military, with 2.2 million members. But the Chinese government resisted until a decade ago, citing a policy of non-interference in other countries.
In 1992, Beijing softened its stance and sent military engineers to Cambodia as part of a U.N. operation related to elections. In 1999, China announced that police also would be available for other U.N. operations. Since the shift, China has dispatched more than 2,700 police officers and army troops to 19 trouble spots, according to the ministry's tally. Chinese police officers currently are taking part in peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, East Timor, Liberia and, with one adviser, Afghanistan, Tan said.
Until now, China's soldiers and police have largely been sprinkled through other countries' battalions or limited to duties such as medical care and road building. Now China has taken the next step with its plans to send off an integrated riot control unit that will operate in Haiti as a Chinese entity under U.N. command to respond to security needs.
The new contingent has signed on for what promises to be tough duty. Since Tropical Storm Jeanne swept over the Caribbean island 12 days ago, Haitians without food, water and shelter, some of them armed, have looted relief supplies and fought one another.
Responding to disorder in Gonaives, a city of 250,000 about 50 miles northwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince, the United Nations has deployed about 750 peacekeepers in the streets, according to news dispatches. Gen. Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira, the Brazilian who heads the U.N. force in Haiti, told the Associated Press he had about 3,000 troops in the country even though 6,700 have been authorized by U.N. headquarters in New York.
The Chinese police unit will not go a long way toward filling the gap. And its newness to Haiti will probably mean taking things slow at first, Tan acknowledged. "This is our first time with such a unit, so maybe we will not have the experience we would need," he said.
But Inspector Li Shaoming, a ministry official, said the Haiti-bound Chinese police, although they would be based in Port-au-Prince, would be available to go wherever U.N. commanders felt they were needed on the island.
Tan said China's decision to send a force to Haiti came in response to a U.N. appeal for the troubled nation and had nothing to do with China's national diplomacy.
Haiti is one of a score of small countries that maintain relations with Taiwan and not mainland China. Using aid programs and other blandishments, Beijing and Taiwan have competed for the loyalty of such countries.
The police officers going to Haiti have taken a U.N.-outlined training program in crowd control, human rights and U.N. procedures, Tan said. They have also studied English and French, he said. But no training was given in Creole, the main language of Haiti, officials acknowledged.