Thousands of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops are currently deployed to some of Africa’s most dangerous locations. In the volatile eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, hundreds of PLA troops are split between several installations surrounded by a kaleidoscope of ambiguity as dozens of armed groups fight each other and government security forces. The PLA troops at these austere locations represent a mix of rank and military specialties: senior colonels managing military hospitals, military engineering noncommissioned officers building roads and infrastructure, and staff officers writing operational plans and coordinating logistics.

Only four hundred miles to the north, over 1,100 PLA troops are deployed throughout war-torn South Sudan. The vast majority of these troops are trained infantrymen ready to face the threats associated with operating in the middle of a deadly and prolonged civil war. The common link between these PLA forces in sub-Saharan Africa central Africa: they are all serving as part of United Nations peacekeeping operations. But these blue helmets are not in Africa solely out of humanitarian benevolence. For China, UN peacekeeping is one of many tools it employs to support its whole-of-nation engagement across Africa to advance its foreign policy goals.

China’s Second Continent

One cannot ignore the rapidly expanding influence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Africa across all four elements of national power on the DIME spectrum (diplomatic, informational, military, and economic). This influence includes augmented diplomatic relations with African countries and the African Union, expanded military-to-military cooperation with African partners, the establishment of China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti, the proliferation of state-owned enterprises across the continent, extensive investment via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and, most recently, China’s highly publicized COVID-19 diplomacy.

Within the military domain, a key aspect of the PRC’s influence relates to its use of UN peacekeeping operations. Although once a reluctant supporter, today the PRC is the second largest financial contributor to UN peacekeeping (behind the United States) and is a major contributor to training international peacekeepers. But one area that has changed and merits closer examination is the PRC’s steadily increasing contribution of actual troops to UN peacekeeping in Africa over the past two decades.

Of the 122 countries that provide troops to UN peacekeeping as of February 2021, China is the world’s ninth leading contributor with 2,464 blue helmets. This commitment dwarfs that of the other permanent members of the UN Security Council: the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and the United States. Chinese peacekeepers represent a diverse cross-section of the PLA including combat troops, force protection soldiers, medical personnel, military engineers, logisticians, and staff officers deployed to some of the UN’s most dangerous operations. The four largest UN operations in Africa with PLA troops include the UN missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Darfur, and Mali. But why are nearly 2,500 PLA troops deployed to such places as eastern Congo, Juba, Darfur, and central Mali and how does this advance Beijing’s interests?

China, like all other countries, is a self-interested state concerned about advancing its own priorities. In Africa, China’s whole-of-nation investment is intricately linked to its foreign policy objectives. As with its major BRI investments in Africa, China’s increased commitment to UN peacekeeping should be viewed through a lens of realism, not as a sign of Beijing’s unexpected turn toward humanitarianism. However, this is not abnormal. Recent research by University of Tennessee professor Gary Uzonyi finds that member states use UN peacekeeping to accomplish their own specific foreign policy goals under the legitimizing cover of the UN flag. Richard Gowan, the UN director at the International Crisis Group, agrees that China’s peacekeeping engagement should not be viewed as its idealist support to multilateralism and humanitarianism. Rather, according to Gowan, “China’s cautious contribution to peacekeeping looks like a pragmatic attempt to advance its interests through the U.N. system.” For China, UN peacekeeping in Africa offers a legal and normalized means to protect its massive investments, obtain needed hard and soft military skills, and enhance its reputation as a benevolent rising superpower actively engaged in the UN system.

Investment Protection

China uses peacekeeping to safeguard its investments in Africa. A notable example is the over 1,100 PLA peacekeepers currently deployed to South Sudan. According to a 2020 report from the Jamestown Foundation, China’s outsized presence in South Sudan is linked directly to the longtime investment from the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) in South Sudan’s oil sector. Since 2011, CNPC’s operations in South Sudan increased even as the internal conflict expanded and foreign companies departed. Today, CNPC is the leading foreign investor in South Sudan’s oil sector and protecting this investment is vital to PRC interests. The number of PLA peacekeepers in South Sudan has steadily increased alongside CNPC’s expansion. In 2015, China deployed a seven-hundred-troop infantry battalion to South Sudan, marking its first and only combat troops serving under the UN. Since 2015, a significant portion of China’s blue helmets in South Sudan are forward deployed in proximity to strategic oil deposits and pipelines, ensuring China can keep a watchful eye on its investment.

Aside from protecting investment in South Sudan, China uses its peacekeeping presence to prevent conflict spillover into neighboring Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia, home to some of China’s signature BRI investments in East Africa. Uncontrolled conflict proliferation in the region could significantly jeopardize Chinese infrastructure investments. Uzonyi would agree with China’s preventive peacekeeping mindset. His research posits that a state is more motivated to contribute to peacekeeping if it determines that addressing conflict-specific factors—such as arms flows, conflict contagion, illicit trafficking, and refugee flows—would directly benefit its foreign policy goals.

South Sudan is only one example of China using UN peacekeeping to help safeguard its economic interests. Of the thirteen countries worldwide where Chinese peacekeepers were deployed between 2012 and 2018, nine were home to large Chinese investment immediately preceding the arrival of PLA peacekeepers. China appears to use its blue helmets to protect its own national interests under the guise of protecting vulnerable civilians in conflict.

Gaining Military Skills and Experience

After twenty years of war across multiple combat theaters, the United States and many of its Western allies, notably France and the United Kingdom, are highly experienced at training, deploying, operating, and sustaining their forces across diverse missions including logistically complicated ground operations, naval power projection, counterterrorism operations, and even humanitarian assistance. Russia, a fellow permanent member of the UN Security Council, is gaining its own experience through its not-so-secret military interventions in places like Syria, the Central African Republic, and Ukraine. Unlike these other Security Council permanent members, China has no real-world combat experience in the past forty years.

Just prior to his retirement in June 2018, PLA Lieutenant General He Lei publicly lamented that his biggest regret is that he never had a chance to fight in a war. China’s last large-scale military conflict was its failed invasion into Vietnam in 1979 and although the PLA has since greatly expanded its force and added high-tech weapons and equipment, its combat effectiveness remains untested.

To combat its lack of operational experience, China uses UN peacekeeping as a low-risk avenue to obtain much-needed military skills and experience. Research from Wake Forest Professor Lina Benabdallah finds that China’s expanded military presence in Africa is aimed at increasing skills transfers and knowledge sharing with its African partners. This reasoning also applies to China’s use of UN peacekeeping to gain both hard and soft military skills. Without having a war in which to fight, the PLA’s infantry force in South Sudan is gaining deployment experience. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, PLA troops representing softer noncombat specialty areas—military medicine and engineering—are learning how to operate in a complex environment. The same is true across the four missions in Africa to which PLA peacekeeping troops are involved: China is able to project power abroad, test its deployment and logistical capabilities, and feel out its new role as a rising global power.

Enhanced Reputation

China uses its participation in UN peacekeeping to build its brand as a benevolent country committed to peace and security while upholding its principle of noninterference. Beijing focuses much of its peacekeeping on noncombat operations in places like Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan, where it provides medical care, infrastructure repair, and personal security. This focus enables China to promote its military cooperation with African partners and bolsters China’s image as a rising power and attractive partner. Chinese domestic and foreign state media continue to highlight the PLA’s participation in UN peacekeeping as a tangible example that China is a responsible player within the international system. China’s use of savvy communications helps to ensure this message resonates with African partners and international observers, and serves as another means for the PRC to boost its global reputation.

Even senior PLA officials would agree with this assessment. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 2017, Senior Colonel Shou Bo, who served at the time as director of the PLA’s Center for Security Cooperation, linked the PRC’s increased support to UN peacekeeping with China’s focus on improving its international prestige by enhancing its “image as a responsible nation on a peaceful rise.” Zhou averred that China’s support to UN peacekeeping is guided by impartiality as China avoids interfering in the domestic affairs of other states. Now retired and a senior fellow at China’s Center for International Security and Strategy, Zhou continues to link Chinese peacekeeping with its impartiality. In 2019, he openly stated that “Africa is a test lab” for China to build military skills and strengthen bilateral partnership through peacekeeping while strictly maintaining a noninterference policy in its partners’ internal affairs.

Is it Working?

The PRC’s strategy of using UN peacekeeping to advance its own priorities appears to be working. China has strengthened bilateral and multilateral cooperation while increasing oversight and protection of its economic investments. As China safeguards its economic priorities, the PLA continues to develop military skills as it enhances its reputation on the global stage. 

In South Sudan, the conflict remains contained—which helps to protect massive BRI investments in neighboring countries—and China’s CNPC has even increased its dominance over the oil sector by signing a 2018 agreement expanding access to hydrocarbon exploration. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, China controls the rare earth minerals market thanks to friendly contracts from the government enabling its vast resource extraction from the country’s eastern regions. In Mali, it may be too early to tell if the PLA peacekeeping presence has met all intended objectives, but China’s relationship building and security presence supports its future economic interests in the country, which remains central to China’s ongoing effort to extend BRI across West Africa.

UN peacekeeping is a low-cost, low-risk path to increasing China’s military capacities. The PLA is gaining experience with training, logistics, lines of communication, combat readiness, pre-deployment training, and a number of other secondary and tertiary skills. By focusing its peacekeeping presence on noncombat operations, Beijing is advancing its long-term PLA reform goals and obtaining key lessons learned in a low-risk environment. And these skills are being honed while the UN pays the PRC approximately $42 million annually for its benevolent contribution of nearly 2,500 peacekeepers.

The PRC judges much of its success on the perceptions of others and early indications are that the PLA’s presence in Africa is a win-win. In a 2016 interview, former Malian prime minister Moussa Mara lauded PLA peacekeepers for their ability to establish trust, support both peace and development, and improve the livelihoods of local Malians. In his most telling statement, Mara expressed that “Chinese peacekeepers have won the hearts of the Malian people.”

Outside of improved relationships with African states, China has noticeably improved its standing within the UN system. China’s investment in UN peacekeeping—through significant funding, training, and troop contributions—is yielding strong returns. One recent example is the appointment of Chinese ambassador Xia Huang as the UN’s special envoy for the Great Lakes region. China has ambitions for greater leadership roles at the UN headquarters with widespread rumors of its lobbying efforts to have a Chinese national lead the Department of Peace Operations, a position traditionally held by the French.

Does it Matter?

The PRC’s use of UN peacekeeping to achieve its own foreign policy goals is not surprising. Most other troop-contributing countries are similarly driven to participate out of self-interest. While self-serving, Beijing’s approach is not necessarily a bad thing and does not negatively impact peacekeeping. As the PRC achieves its own economic, military, and reputational goals, UN peacekeeping is better funded, better trained, and better manned to carry out today’s complex missions.

However, the PRC’s dogmatic references to its principle of noninterference in Africa increasingly do not hold water. Deploying peacekeepers to safeguard one’s own investments and bolster one’s own reputation cannot be considered anything short of interference. According to Benabdallah, the paradox between Beijing’s rhetoric and reality indicates that the PRC wants to simultaneously gain power and advance its foreign policy goals while branding its engagement as benevolent. Regardless of the rhetoric, interference is China’s modus operandi to achieving its goals in Africa.

Geopolitical competitors must take note of China’s motivations. China is indeed using the legitimizing cover of UN operations to obtain resources, win friends, and develop skills and capabilities that, in other environments, on other days, could be employed against its great power rivals. By understanding China’s means to achieve its long-term objectives, Western policymakers can develop informed strategies to maximize China’s participation within the UN system while countering its ability to gain a competitive advantage.

Major Thomas Dyrenforth is a US Army foreign area officer currently serving at United States Africa Command in Germany. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and holds a master of international policy and practice from the Elliott School at George Washington University. Major Dyrenforth was most recently assigned as a military attaché at the US embassy in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: UNMISS