On April 16, China released its latest biennial white paper on the state of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The document, published by China's cabinet
equivalent, the Information Office of the State Council, emphasizes the PLA's "active role in maintaining world peace, security and stability" through
contributions to multilateral peacekeeping operations (PKOs). "Tough, brave and devoted, Chinese peacekeepers accomplish all their tasks in an exemplary
manner," the paper says.
But on the ground, Chinese peacekeepers might not always live up to Beijing's expectations. One issue is the communications gap between peacekeepers and the locals they are trying to protect. "Languages are a problem for every nationality," says Sofia Candeias, who worked for the United Nations in Bukavu from 2010 to 2012 and saw how difficult it can be for all parties to communicate with each other.*
China, though, is new at peacekeeping. Chin-Hao Huang, a researcher at the University of Southern California specializing in Chinese international security policy, is convinced that as the country's commitment to peacekeeping grows, troops will become more adept at operating in foreign environments.
"As the PLA troops interact with foreign counterparts, UN officials and local people on a human level, they begin to understand the importance of
peacekeeping, of security and development, security sector reform, and overall conflict sensitivity," he says. Chinese contributions to the international
security agenda are self-enforcing; as China takes on more responsibility in global security tasks, it realizes the importance of becoming ever more
"Participating in UN missions is an unobjectionable way for China to fly its flag," says Professor Richard Betts, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Security
Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The UN is about multilateralism, not imperialism. Participation in missions is an ideal way to be muscular,
but without offending."
It is impossible to ignore the expansion of China's military capabilities. Official figures show that Chinese defense expenditures have averaged 12.1
percent growth per year since 1989, but U.S. Department of Defense reports indicate that real figures may be much higher. There are few ways China can
convince the international community that its intentions are benign, says Betts. Peacekeeping is one of them.
In addition, increasing Chinese commitment to peacekeeping is a relatively simple way to garner support from smaller nations in the United Nations . "China
came late to the UN table, but saw the influence that India -- traditionally one of the major contributors to peacekeeping missions -- has built up through
peace and security operations," says Jayadeva Ranade, a member of the Indian National Security Advisory Board. Despite still contributing significantly fewer troops than India or Pakistan, China has learned that peacekeeping is an
excellent way of increasing its soft power at the UN.