While Americans recognize China’s rapid rise as an economic powerhouse, the implications remain murky. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, most people unfavorably view China as the world’s leading economic power. Indeed, twenty percent of Americans viewed China, not Iran, as America’s top enemy in 2014. When discussing China, Americans think of its 13.39 trillion GDP (2013 est), expansion into the South China Sea or human rights abuses. Indeed, China’s global influence is expanding in surprising ways. China is the largest contributor to UN Peacekeeping Operations of all the permanent members of the UN Security Council. China’s rise in peacekeeping operations is indicative of China’s rise in global prominence as it expands its role in foreign affairs and protects its own economic interests.
China currently contributes 2181 police, military experts and troops to UN Peacekeeping missions –seventeen times more than the US contribution. These peacekeeping forces are scattered around the world located in areas ranging from Mali to Lebanon to Cyprus according to data collected in 2013. It ranks 13th among countries dedicating troops to Peacekeeping Missions in between Morocco and South Africa.
China’s leadership in UN Peacekeeping Operations leaves many experts asking one question: why? In December, a Chinese infantry battalion joined UN Peacekeepers in South Sudan, marking the first time China sent an infantry battalion on a peacekeeping mission. According to the Chinese publication Xinhuanet, the answer is simple: this signals “Beijing’s growing role in world affairs.” Emilio Cardenas, Argentina’s former Ambassador to the UN, said China’s “leading role and influence are clearly on the rise.” By providing military support in war-torn regions, China indicates its rise on the global stage, as it no longer isolates its power to regional affairs. The Chinese government views its rise in peacekeeping forces as commensurate to the international community’s expectations of increased Chinese involvement in promoting peace and stability. China may seek to gain soft power and good will from its participation in UN Peacekeeping missions after its belligerent actions in the South China Sea.
However, skeptics vehemently disagree. China may be acting merely to ensure a steady supply of oil from South Sudan. Five percent of China’s oil imports came from Sudan in 2011. Indeed, prior to the break-up of Sudan from 2003 to 2006, China backed the Sudanese governments by providing over $55 million in small arms in addition to aircraft and large weaponry reportedly due to their reliance on Sudanese oil. In general, top contributors, such as Bangladesh and India, to peacekeeping forces tend to be located near post-conflict areas with vested interests in resolving tensions. Therefore, China’s involvement may also be self-serving.
Beyond the monetary incentives, peacekeeping missions also benefit China militarily. As the Chinese military and police force deploy around the world, China not only gains experience for its soldiers and policemen, but it also gains a global presence. Unlike the United States, which operates 700 to 800 military bases abroad, China does not have a global network of military bases. Instead, it has peacekeepers.
Why should Americans care about China’s increase in military peacekeepers? Besides arguably providing hope of de-escalation in a war-torn region, they prove one conclusion: China is a global power. When we talk about UN Peacekeeping Operations, we need to talk about China. When discussing China, Americans must remember that China’s military presence is not localized to the South China Sea. Its participation in peacekeeping missions allows it to maintain a global military presence. While US policymakers often discuss the Asia Pivot as if it is separate from foreign policy goals in other regions, it must recognize that China cannot be localized to East Asia. Acknowledging China’s worldwide posture is crucial not only for improving US-China relations but also for resolving disputes around the globe. China went global – it’s time for us to recognize it.