Globalist Perspective

Chinese Peacekeepers in Africa?

Will China step up in South Sudan’s crisis?

PLA 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division, July 2011. (Credit: U.S. Dept. of Defense via Wikimedia)


  • China has long been a major, if quiet, contributor of troops to UN peacekeeping missions around the world.
  • As China rises in world status, it must also take on more global responsibilities.
  • Two decades later, “Somalia” remains a watchword in the U.S. elite against closely policing African conflicts.
  • The UN mandate in S. Sudan could be bolstered with Chinese troops, as France has done elsewhere.
  • Being a major military player in global affairs means sometimes stepping in, to protect innocent civilians.
  • Given China’s economic ties, no one is better positioned to intervene in South Sudan’s crisis right now.

China has long been a major, if quiet, contributor of troops to United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world. In the violent aftermath of an alleged attempted coup this week in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, the time is ripe to think about changing that stance. As China rises in world status, it must also take on more global responsibilities.

The United Nations mission in South Sudan reported that 400-500 people were killed in street battles and crossfire, within the first two days alone. As many as 20,000 civilians may have sought refuge on UN bases in the country.

South Sudan became independent from the rest of Sudan by referendum in 2011, and its strongest foreign partner is China. That country buys 82% of South Sudan’s oil exports and provides infrastructural development investments. Indeed, China was a major player in securing the peaceful partition of Sudan last decade, as the largest trading partner of both states.

In neighboring Central African Republic, the United Nations Security Council has just authorized a French-led mission to intervene in the mass sectarian violence in the former French colony. The Council members, including China, unanimously approved this action.

Who could act in South Sudan?

South Sudan is a former Anglo-Egyptian territory but does not retain close ties to either in the way that the Central African Republic remains close with France. Instead, its recent separation from Sudan brought it closest to the United States and to China. Thus, there is little prospect of Britain repeating its Sierra Leone action and stepping in to halt clashes in Juba.

The United States is dramatically expanding the number of military operations on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa in the coming year. However, these have remained very small and are generally restricted to advisory or support roles assisting national governments.

Two decades later, “Somalia” remains a watchword in the U.S. elite against closely policing African conflicts. And with the recent near-defeat of President Obama’s plans for a “humanitarian intervention” in Syria, before he pulled it off the table, he seems unlikely to try again so soon. That South Sudan’s oil is going to China, not America, also won’t help.

Thus, despite close political friendship between the South Sudanese leadership and the United States, it will again fall to China to play a lead mediating role in a Sudanese crisis.

Chinese peacekeepers in Africa

China’s contributions to UN peacekeeping missions have generally been non-combat peacekeepers in medical and engineering roles.

But in both South Sudan in 2011 and Mali this year, elite Chinese combat troops have been spotted in protective details for its non-combat peacekeepers. Engineering projects in Africa, both through the United Nations and through China’s investment operations, often require armed protection.

Still, so far there has been no major People’s Liberation Army combat deployment in Africa. If China is going to play a large investment role in sub-Saharan Africa, it must be willing to play a security role, too. China should step up and provide large combat troop deployments through the United Nations.

The United Nations is already on the ground in South Sudan. It would not be difficult to expand this mandate and bolster its presence with Chinese troops, as the French have done in Mali and the Central African Republic. Nearby UN operations in Democratic Republic of the Congo this year have already shown the potential for more aggressive peacekeeping to halt fighting.

China: Major power or not?

China should step up at the UN Security Council and offer its services as an intervention force in South Sudan to create space for a political resolution to the crisis.

At the moment, China is no doubt working furiously to get the clashing parties back to the table to avoid the oil taps shutting off. But the cost of waiting for this to happen – without an external intervention halting the fighting in the interim – will be mass civilian casualties and an overstretched UN mission trying to protect thousands of fleeing civilians.

Being a major military player in global affairs means sometimes being willing to step in between two bickering factions to protect innocent civilians.

No doubt China fears this will be seen as meddling or neocolonialism, which could jeopardize their investments in the country. But given China’s deep economic links – which have kept South Sudan’s government going since independence – no one is better positioned than China to intervene in South Sudan’s crisis right now.

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About Bill Humphrey

Bill Humphrey is a senior editor at The Globalist. [United States] (@BillHumphreyMA)

Responses to “Chinese Peacekeepers in Africa?”

Archived Comments.

  1. On December 20, 2013 at 9:40 am arbeee responded with... #

    Perhaps a better role for China would be to assist in the financing and supplying of a peace keeping force drawn from African countries under the African Union.

  2. On December 20, 2013 at 9:47 am bhumphreyTG responded with... #

    That is certainly also a possible option, but the African Union is stretched pretty thin at the moment. I think a joint mission would be the strongest.

    Plus, both factions in South Sudan have a stronger incentive to placate China, the country’s main trade partner, than they do to placate foreign African troops.

  3. On December 20, 2013 at 10:20 am arbeee responded with... #

    My concern with a direct military involvement by China in Africa is that it would be seen as an imperialistic positioning by China bashers given their sizeable investments in Africa. China’s contributing could do much to strengthen the African Unions peace keeping capabilities without Chinese military boots in Africa.

  4. On December 20, 2013 at 10:24 am bhumphreyTG responded with... #

    I agree that it’s a risk, but France has very sizable investments in many of the countries it maintains troops in, and there are generally not too many complaints from the rest of the world. I’m sure there would be a double standard with China, but that should not be a deterrent.

  5. On December 21, 2013 at 8:14 am steven kuo responded with... #

    The complaint that China is not playing an appropriatly large security role in Africa is not new. Brussels has also called on China to play a greater security role (this must be at least 2 years ago now). However, like in the field of aid where the OECD has compalined that China is not joning its efforts in conditioned aid, China will not join the West in its ‘interventionist missions’. This is because China is keen to present itself as a leading country of the South. In addition, UN peacekeeping is not intervention. Also, China does not have the army of NGO workers that the West does nor leverage to bring the warring factions together. The probably less than one dozen diplomats in its South Sudan office are no doubt overwhlmed with trying to help its nationals than trying to solve the problem within the SPLA/M.