On United Nations International Peacekeepers Day, May 29, China Global TV Network (CGTN) commentator Han Hua spoke with Senior-Colonel (Ret.) Zhou Bo, senior fellow of Tsinghua University's Centre for International Security and Strategy. Zhou served as the People's Liberation Army's international coordinator for peacekeeping.
In the interview, Zhou stated that China's military peacekeeping efforts at home and abroad are interconnected. "Peacekeeping is part of the Chinese military's 'going out,'" he asserted. Explaining that the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) has two main missions overseas – to protect China's overseas interests and to "assume international responsibilities," he said: "A country's military has the basic task of defending the country and its territory, airspace and territorial waters. However, it is different for a major power, which has overseas interests and has to assume international responsibilities. The vision and actions of a major power go far beyond its own national boundaries. In the case of China, Chinese nationals are already everywhere, China's overseas interests are everywhere, and China's overseas influence is everywhere."
He also expressed skepticism regarding whether China and the U.S. can genuinely cooperate in peacekeeping in their current state of strategic competition.
Below are excerpts of the interview with Zhou, as published in the Shanghai-based media outlet Guancha (The Observer):
Chinese Peacekeeping Troops (Source: CGTN)
'China's Involvement In Peacekeeping Began In 1990'
Han Hua: "The Chinese military's participation in UN peacekeeping operations marked the 30th anniversary in 2020, and the Chinese government has also issued a white paper on the subject. Could you please provide a brief history of China's participation in peacekeeping and its current status?"
Zhou Bo: "The UN officially began peacekeeping operations in 1948, when it oversaw a ceasefire between Arab countries and Israel. China's involvement in peacekeeping began in 1990, when it sent its first peacekeeping observers. Since then, more than 30 years have passed. Over the time, our peacekeeping efforts have gradually evolved and expanded, beginning with the deployment of peacekeeping observers and progressing to the deployment of engineers, field hospitals, and transport units. By 2015, we had dispatched infantry troops, and the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) is now capable of undertaking all types of UN peacekeeping missions, as well as meeting the needs for personnel and equipment in a variety of scenarios. Not only have we sent personnel, but we have also sent heavy equipment such as helicopters. Heavy equipment like this, as well as drones, are critical for peacekeeping operations."
Officers and soldiers from the Chinese peacekeeping force attend a command handover ceremony between the 18th and 19th batches of peacekeeping troops at the Chinese peacekeeping force camp in Hanniyah Village, southern Lebanon. (Source: Xinhua News Agency)
'China Is Playing A Key Role,' With 850 Troops Joining The UN 'Vanguard Brigade'
Han Hua: "As I understand it, for the first 25 years of China's participation in peacekeeping, it primarily sent logistical support units such as engineers, medics, and transportation, later adding infantry and helicopters. What prompted this decision?"
Zhou Bo: "What type of troops are the most conveniently assigned to peacekeeping? That'd be infantry. Most countries send their infantry for peacekeeping because it doesn't get much simpler than a soldier with a gun on patrol duty. We sent engineers, medics, and transport troops from the start, which were in high demand for peacekeeping operations. Furthermore, we learned as we went along and gradually changed our mindset. We thought it would be more sensitive at the time to send combat soldiers abroad, because it is China's foreign policy not to interfere in other countries' sovereignty and internal affairs. However, if a party invites them and the UN authorizes the mission, it is clear that this does not count as an intervention in internal affairs.
"In the past, the first generation of peacekeepers dealt with conflicts between countries. When the countries in question were unable to resolve their feud, they requested that the UN send observers or peacekeepers. Today, we are seeing more of the second generation of peacekeeping, where the conflict is within a country and involves battling tribes, ethnicities, and national affiliations, making the situation extremely complicated. I once accompanied the UN Under-Secretary-General to our peacekeeping training facility. On the way, he told me that the UN has not yet decided what to do if host governments are responsible for the deaths of their own civilians. This is a common predicament.
"In fact, this issue was on display during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. That genocide resulted in the deaths of millions of people. Peacekeepers did not play any role, in part because they were too few in number in comparison to both sides of the conflict, and the UN did not authorize them to intervene. Instead, it became a watershed moment in the history of peacekeeping, and people began to wonder what the purpose of peacekeeping was. What is the point of peacekeeping if civilians are not protected? As a result of this introspection, the protection of civilians has become the most important mission of peacekeeping today.
"I attended a peacekeeping conference in Rwanda in 2016, and two things stood out to me: The first was when I visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, and the docent told me that there were 250,000 massacre victims buried beneath us, and the second was when someone spoke at the conference and said two words: 'Never again!' To say that this can't happen again! One person even asked: 'Is the protection of civilians as complicated as rocket science?' Although the protection of civilians is the first priority of peacekeeping officers and soldiers, there are numerous constraints in practice. For example, if you need to rush in at the first sign of conflict, where will your logistical supplies, such as food and water, come from once you're there? Where would reliable information come from? All of these things should be provided by the UN, but can the UN do so in a timely manner? Also, how do you figure out who the warring parties are? How would you protect yourself? When all of these factors are considered together, civilian protection can be compared to the complexity of rocket science.
"China has made significant contributions to civilian protection in peacekeeping. We do everything we can to protect civilians while adhering to the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs. In South Sudan, for example, government troops fought against anti-government forces, with tanks, heavy artillery, and helicopter gunships on both sides. In this situation, our peacekeeping officers and soldiers put their lives on the line to protect over 9,000 civilians. Two soldiers, Li Lei and Yang Shupeng, died heroically during the mission. In addition, to protect civilians, the UN has established the Vanguard Brigade, a rapid response force that can be quickly deployed to conflict zones during a crisis. Because the UN does not have its own troops, its forces are made up of elite troops drawn from various countries, with China playing a key role, with 850 troops joining the brigade. When called upon, this force must arrive on the scene within two months to deal with the most critical and dangerous situations. Indeed, Chinese officers and soldiers are dedicated to the cause of peacekeeping with tenacity and determination."
'China Now Ranks Ninth In The World In Terms Of Total Peacekeeping Troops Deployed Abroad'
Han Hua: "Do the difficulties [of peacekeeping] include, for example, the issue of peacekeeping costs? Can China, as one of the countries that places the most emphasis on peacekeeping, improve UN peacekeeping?"
Zhou Bo: "The UN pays the cost of peacekeeping to the countries involved in two parts: personnel compensation and equipment compensation. But where does the money come from? The UN members share the costs, although the proportion varies. It is worth noting that China's contribution to UN funding has been steadily increasing, and it has risen to second place in both total UN contributions and peacekeeping contributions and has never been late with its payments.
"The question of how China can improve UN peacekeeping is a fascinating one. When we look at the composition of UN peacekeeping countries, we can see that the majority of them are developing countries, specifically South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. These are the primary contributors to peacekeeping, but there are some significant African contributors as well, including Ethiopia and Rwanda.
"China now ranks ninth in the world in terms of total peacekeeping troops deployed abroad, but we are the largest troop contributor among the Security Council's five permanent members. The Chinese peacekeeping force has a distinct advantage. We have the best combination of three conditions, whether compared to developing or developed countries: excellent equipment, high-quality personnel, and strong political will – in other words, the Chinese military is the only force capable of combining all three of these elements. Developing countries have the will, but not always the equipment and quality troops; developed countries have good equipment and personnel, but not a strong will, so the number of people involved in peacekeeping is small.
"Take, for example, the world's most powerful military, the U.S. Army. The UN announced in November 2020 that the number of American active duty personnel engaged in peacekeeping at the time was 28, compared to 2,548 for China. What does this distinction imply? It demonstrates that, despite having strong military and highly qualified personnel, the U.S. lacks the political will to use them. Developing countries, on the other hand, have the political will, but they are under-equipped and their personnel are not always well-trained. For example, 'sexual abuse' is the most serious internal problem of UN peacekeeping missions. Some UN troops have exploited local women to the detriment of the UN, and while the UN has stated that there is no tolerance for such behavior, it has never been able to address the issue. These problems could never arise among Chinese soldiers and officers.
"Furthermore, UN peacekeeping necessitates a large amount of equipment, but where can it get it from? Equipment from developed countries is prohibitively expensive, whereas Chinese equipment is of high quality and reasonably priced, making it more than adequate for peacekeeping. As a result, the majority of African and Asian countries purchase equipment from China. Nepal requested armored vehicles from China, which were then transported directly to the Golan Heights for use by Nepalese soldiers and officers in peacekeeping. After a while, equipment will break down, so who is the best at repairing Chinese equipment? Of course, the Chinese. Therefore, China can make significant contributions to the ongoing maintenance of peacekeeping equipment.
"I think China's peacekeeping endeavors are a beacon of light for the UN. I once asked the UN Under-Secretary-General if it was possible for China to play a leading role in UN peacekeeping. He said, without hesitation, 'Yes, of course!'"
The 20th Chinese naval escort group in the Gulf of Aden, Somalia, was the first time China sent special forces alongside the escorted ships to perform escort duties (Source: Xinhua)
The Chinese People's Liberation Army Has Two Main Missions Overseas
Han Hua: "We all know that the Chinese People's Liberation Army has now gone abroad to defend China's overseas interests. Does this have anything to do with China's active participation in peacekeeping?"
Zhou Bo: "Peacekeeping is part of the Chinese military's 'going out.' The Chinese People's Liberation Army has two main missions overseas, the first is to protect China's overseas interests, and the second is to assume international responsibility. A country's military has the basic task of defending the country and its territory, airspace and territorial waters. However, it is different for a major power, which has overseas interests and has to assume international responsibilities. The vision and actions of a major power go far beyond its own national boundaries.
"In the case of China, Chinese nationals are already everywhere, China's overseas interests are everywhere, and China's overseas influence is everywhere. So how should the Chinese military defend these overseas interests, including the safety of Chinese citizens overseas? As a major power, peacekeeping, anti-piracy and future overseas counter-terrorism are all ways in which the Chinese military can assume international responsibility. Peacekeeping is one of the most important ways in which the Chinese military can contribute to world peace.
"China does not want to be the world's policeman. The Chinese military's current overseas military operations are described in one sentence as 'responding to non-traditional security threats' or, in other words, making 'humanitarian contributions.' Whether it is anti-piracy, peacekeeping, disaster relief, or evacuation of overseas Chinese, all are of this nature."
Peacekeeping Serves 'An Indirect Function In The Belt And Road Initiative'
Han Hua: "Speaking of overseas interests, the Belt and Road Initiative also passes through some high-risk regions. Can peacekeeping play a role in this regard?"
Zhou Bo: "Peacekeeping is a UN operation that cannot directly serve a country's interests, but it does serve an indirect function in the Belt and Road Initiative. Some Belt and Road countries overlap geographically with specific peacekeeping missions, such as the United Nations India-Pakistan Observation Mission, where the UN has a long-term peacekeeping force deployed. Strengthening peacekeeping forces along Belt and Road countries should contribute to the security of these countries. For example, 90% of South Sudan's oil is exported to China. If Chinese workers and engineers see Chinese peacekeepers patrolling the area, they will feel much more secure."
'During Trump's Presidency, The U.S. Began To Engage In So-Called 'Strategic Competition' With China'
Han Hua: "Last question. China has always advocated mutual respect and win-win cooperation in Sino-U.S. relations. Is it possible for China and the U.S. to cooperate in peacekeeping?"
Zhou Bo: "That is an excellent question. Although the U.S. claims to have few personnel involved in peacekeeping, it is the world's number one contributor, so its contribution is not insignificant. The main way the U.S. performs peacekeeping tasks in Africa is by training local peacekeepers on the ground. During the Obama administration, one of the agreements reached between the U.S. and China was to strengthen cooperation in peacekeeping and assist third parties in building their peacekeeping capacity. Things have changed since Trump took office. His disdain for the UN is well known, so his stance on peacekeeping was also predictable. He threatened to cut $1 billion in UN peacekeeping funding at the start of his term in 2017. During Trump's presidency, the U.S. began to engage in the so-called 'strategic competition' with China. How can a third party be convinced that two countries will genuinely cooperate and help it improve its peacekeeping capabilities if they are competing?"
 Guancha.cn/ZhouBo3/2021_05_29_592418_s.shtml, May 29, 2021.