Many aspects of Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to the United States have been noteworthy, but a particularly interesting element emerged during his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Monday. Buried at the end of his speech was a promise to set up an 8,000-strong peacekeeping force. China is testing the waters a little more as it moves toward establishing a global military capability.
This does not mean that China will suddenly deploy 8,000 troops. It does mean that Chinese participation in peacekeeping efforts in a variety of places will grow. Most U.N. peacekeeping operations are in Africa, and a Chinese peacekeeping presence will go hand in hand with the political and economic ties Beijing has established in the continent. Participating in operations in countries where it also has direct economic interests, such as South Sudan, will also help Beijing reinforce its foreign policy. However, deploying to other regions such as the Middle East or Eastern Europe could incite opposition to China's expanded role, although a presence in these areas could serve Beijing's interests even more as it seeks to extend its influence westward.
China's level of participation also affects its role in the U.N. Security Council. As a permanent member, China already has substantial power in the United Nations, but contributing even more peacekeeping forces would only increase its direct influence over specific peacekeeping operations. Right now, China is the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that is in the top 20 troop-contributing countries, and as Beijing solidifies that position it will become harder for other permanent members to conduct peacekeeping operations without China's consideration.
Moreover, China has been looking for potential low-risk military adventures in which it can explore its capabilities and the political aspects of becoming involved in global defense. Peacekeeping operations, which China has already taken part in, provide a safe environment for testing and developing its military abilities.
The United Nations is also consistently looking for troop contributors: Several of its ongoing operations are staffed below their mandated capacity. Troops from countries that can deliver a certain degree of professionalism, or particular platforms such as helicopters or transport aircraft, are in especially high demand. Currently, countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Rwanda are among the top contributors of peacekeepers, but they focus more on the financial support they receive in return for their services than on professionalism or delivery of assets.
Moreover, U.N. peacekeeping missions in Africa are experiencing equipment shortages. Troop-contributing countries are reluctant to deploy helicopters, hampering many missions' ability to observe and monitor wide areas and limiting forces' access to air support when needed. The United Nations faces a severe lack of transport aircraft for troops committed to peacekeeping operations. China is capable of deploying both helicopters and transport aircraft. Although it is not certain that China will focus on fulfilling these needs, the possibility illustrates that China's desire to get more involved in peacekeeping missions is compatible with U.N. needs.
The People's Liberation Army currently has almost 3,000 peacekeepers active in several missions across Africa, most notably those in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mali. The 8,000 troops Xi referred to will not necessarily all be deployed at the same time, in addition to the 3,000 soldiers already deployed, but will instead form a permanent pool of peacekeepers from which China will be able to draw. Considering the requirement to rotate forces and to retrain them in between deployments, a total pool of 8,000 troops may not actually result in much of an increase from the current deployment. Still, the fact that the deployment pool exists will make future deployments easier.
The kind of peacekeeping deployments China conducts has begun gradually changing from support roles to actual combat. Initially, China sent mostly engineering forces or medical teams, enabling it to carry a certain degree of responsibility as a troop-contributing country while avoiding the worries of its forces getting caught in firefights. Changing the quantity and frequency, as well as the role, of its peacekeeping deployments enables China to move toward establishing a basic expeditionary capability without necessarily disrupting its policy of noninterference. This also directly addresses some of the intent China laid out in its military doctrine, such as the reorientation to "trans-theater mobility," which will be facilitated by the lessons China learns from deploying forces and logistical support abroad on peacekeeping missions.
Xi's statement at the U.N. General Assembly does not mean there will be a sudden surge in Chinese peacekeeping operations. As China sets up its new force, it will have to formally declare particular military units as dedicated peacekeeping forces for the United Nations, and these units will then have to be assessed by a U.N. team before they are cleared for deployments. Though China has a way to go before it becomes a true global military power, its initial steps — toward more peacekeeping operations — are moving it slowly but surely in that direction.