They may not be exactly the kind of glamorous, romantically-inclined heroes featured in the TV dramas they help inspire, but when it comes to being professional and scandal-free, China’s peacekeeping troops are the men - and women - for the job, and have been lauded as “the most professional, well-trained, effective and disciplined contingents in UN peacekeeping” for their professionalism, integrity and quality service. As the leading financier and top personnel contributor to the peacekeeping missions of the United Nations (UN), China is increasingly regarded as a key player and bastion of strength in the world’s peacekeeping efforts.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of “peacekeeping forces”? Would it be the gallant and good-looking Captain Yoo (柳大尉) in Korea’s blockbuster drama series Descendants of the Sun (太陽的後裔)? Or the sex exploitation scandals committed by peacekeeping forces of various countries that crop up frequently in media reports?
In the real world, there are indeed peacekeepers who, despite being less photogenic and charming than their TV drama counterparts, have earned uniform respect and praise from the international community for their professionalism, integrity and quality service. They are the peacekeeping forces of China.
In May 2018, to acknowledge China’s contributions to the international peacekeeping efforts, the UN Department of Global Communications released a special video and photos to convey the United Nations’ gratitude to China.
Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, spoke highly of China’s peacekeeping forces: “I was deeply impressed by the quality of the Chinese contingent, qualified people and quality equipment -- this is very important.” China deserves wider recognition for her contributions to the peacekeeping efforts, he added.
Likewise, a study prepared by the renowned Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) based in Sweden commented, “Chinese peacekeepers are consistently rated among the most professional, well-trained, effective and disciplined in UN peacekeeping operations.”
So, what has China actually done to earn such a reputation?
The participation of the Chinese military in UN peacekeeping operations began in 1990, when China deployed five military observers to a UN Truce Supervision Organization.
In 1992, China sent a cadre of military engineers comprising 400 military officers to Cambodia to aid the UN Transitional Authority there. This was China’s first deployment of a formed unit to participate in the UN’s peacekeeping operation.
In 2000, China deployed 15 policemen to East Timor to serve in civilian police peacekeeping missions, marking the entry of Chinese police into the UN peacekeeping scene.
In 2002, China formally joined the Class-A standby arrangements of the UN Peacekeeping Standby Arrangements System.
In 2014, following the deployment of combat engineers, medical and logistical personnel and a police squad to South Sudan, China dispatched its first formed infantry battalion to the infantry barracks there to undertake UN peacekeeping missions. The infantry battalion included a squad of female soldiers.
At the 2015 UN General Assembly, Xi Jinping (習近平) proactively pledged the establishment of an 8,000-strong Chinese standby militia for peacekeeping operations, more than half the size of the UN’s entire standby force at that time. Since then the 8000-member force has been assembled and registered for its UN mission.
As of October 2018, over 2,500 Chinese military officers were still serving peacekeeping missions at seven UN mission areas as well as in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
Among the Permanent Five Members of the United Nations Security Council, China is the top troop-contributing nation, having provided more than double the number of peacekeepers than the other four permanent members combined. As of February 2019, China had deployed a total of 39,000 military personnel to take part in 24 successive peacekeeping missions, and was hailed as a “critical factor and key peacekeeping force” by the international community. Up to 2018, Chinese peacekeepers had built and repaired more than 16,000 km of roads, removed more than 9,800 mines and various unexploded ordnance, treated more than 200,000 patients, transported 1.35 million tons of various materials and equipment and travelled a total distance of 13 million km - equivalent to circumnavigating the globe 300 times.
In addition, China has been shouldering an increasing share of the UN’s peacekeeping budget, making it the second largest financial contributor after the United States and the largest contributor among developing nations. In other words, as China rises, so does its participation in and contributions to peacekeeping efforts. It is currently the most proactive country in providing financial and personnel support to peacekeeping.
Over the last 20 years, Chinese peacekeepers have become a common sight around the world in regions rife with conflict, danger and difficulties, be it the war-torn South Sudan, Ebola-plagued Liberia, the perilous minefields in Lebanon or crime-ridden Haiti. Chinese military peacekeepers have remained committed to their mission to be a source of peace and relief for the suffering populace.
Major distribution of Chinese peacekeepers in foreign countries
China’s peacekeeping forces have served in various capacities, mine clearance, bomb disposal, security duties, engineering and construction works, provision of medical aid, joint anti-terrorism missions, assisting with disaster relief, providing aid to children, and more.
In Liberia, for example, where the continuous war has taken the lives of 200,000 Liberians and displaced over a million from their homes, the Chinese army has participated in the UN’s peacekeeping operations since the mission was established in 2003.
In 2014, when Africa was ravaged by Ebola, a virus with a fatality rate of up to 90 percent, the World Health Organization gave dire warnings that the outbreak in the region could “spin out of control.” With over 40 percent of its medical personnel infected by the virus, Liberia’s national health care system was in a near-paralyzed state, leading to panic. While various countries scrambled to plan the evacuations of their nationals and cancel flights to the region, China’s peacekeepers rose to the challenge and stayed resolutely at their posts.
In many Ebola-hit villages, the free medical care provided by China’s medical contingent saved the lives of many villagers. Among the three UN-operated level-2 hospitals in Liberia, only the Chinese hospital kept its doors open to receive patients. The hospitals also produced a bilingual (in Chinese and English) guide on the prevention and treatment of Ebola, and established the first set of body temperature checkpoints.
Working in a sweltering heat of 40 degrees Celsius, peacekeeping forces carried out construction work non-stop for 28 days, putting in over 16 hours per day to complete the Ebola Treatment Unit more than 30 days ahead of schedule. It was also Liberia’s first foreign-constructed and run treatment centre.
A Liberian media hailed the Chinese-built Ebola Treatment Unit as the best Ebola treatment facility - with the highest level of comfort and service quality ever - since the discovery of the virus in 1976.
Over 14 years, the Chinese military have deployed over 10,297 military personnel to Liberia to serve as peacekeepers. Paying the price with their sweat, blood and even their lives, these peacekeepers have helped bring peace back to the West African nation. In March 2017, with the situation within Liberia stabilized, it was determined by the United Nations that China’s 19th and last unit deployed to Liberia could return to China upon completing their various missions.
Chinese riot police squads were dispatched to Liberia from 2013 onwards, maintaining public order and dealing with unforeseen incidents. The combat-savvy squad members also provided vocational training to peacekeepers of various countries and delivered daily necessities and stationery to local orphans.
In March 2018, the fifth riot police squad dispatched to Liberia completed their one-year mission successfully and returned to their homeland.
Looking back at this 14-year long period of peacekeeping, President Sirleaf of Liberia commended China’s troops for laying the foundation for Liberia’s revival, stating, “Liberia will never forget the friendship of Chinese peacekeeping soldiers.”
Selected from the military through a rigorous screening process, Chinese peacekeepers possess a high level of professionalism and dedication to duty, as amply demonstrated in their peacekeeping mission in Lebanon.
Between Lebanon and Israel, the area around the “blue line” (a temporary 121 km-long demarcation line established by the United Nations to separate Lebanon and Israel due to border dispute) is also known as the “death zone,” as it contains hundreds of thousands of landmines.
At the end of 2016, around 28 square km of land in Lebanon remained infested with landmines and unexploded ordnance. Despite the massive problem, the United Nations currently only has peacekeepers from China and Cambodia working on mine-sweeping. Due to terrain-imposed limitations, personnel must clear the land inch-by-inch manually. The difficult and dangerous nature of the work, along with the endurance and perseverance demanded, is simply too demanding for any ordinary person.
Demonstrating extraordinary psychological mettle and exemplary professional technique, Chinese military personnel have detected and cleared nearly 10,000 landmines and unexploded ordnance since 2006, setting international records for their mine-sweeping speed, work quality, low cost and low casualty rate. The term, “China-style mine sweeping” has become synonymous with the safe and efficient mode of operation by the Chinese peacekeepers in Lebanon.
Not only is their number plenty, the mines themselves have also become unstable over time and may blow up any time. There are also anti-tank mines: once detonated, they are deadly to anyone within a 300-metre radius and can render blast-resistant equipment completely useless.
Mine-sweeping personnel tend to crawl on the ground as they work. Once they have detected the signal source, a wooden frame is used to mark the location of the mine. Then they start digging from 20 cm away. When they get close, their movements will have to be the softer and slower - turning over earth with a small spade and severing grass roots with shears. At very close proximity, a brush would be used to remove dirt. Where the soil proves immovable, the brushing would be repeated after the area is drenched using a watering can - all done so meticulously that would put archaeologists to shame. Thus it often takes three to four months to create a 100-metre path. There are even further hazards when war is still ongoing. Fighter planes would sometimes fly over the work areas and drop bombs which explode in the vicinity...
Danger is never far away: so far 22 Chinese peacekeepers including Li Lei (李磊) and Yang Shupeng (楊樹朋) have lost their lives, honouring their oath to fulfil their mission faithfully and safeguard world peace; not only with words, but with their lives.
Nevertheless, China’s peacekeepers soldier on - on the shell-blasted land of Mali, in ever-turbulent South Sudan and in pestilence-ravaged Liberia... undaunted by hardships, they continue to forge ahead to show the world by their actions what it means to take responsibility as a major nation, and the steely commitment expected of a soldier of such a nation. They have proved their ability to shoulder responsibility and defend peace.
Perhaps a remark by the former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon best sums it up: “I am very proud of the work done by the Chinese peacekeepers and it is them who have brought peace, security and freedom to our world.”
United Nations Peacekeeping official website
Chinese "Blue Helmets" Shoulder Responsibilities of a Major Country (中國藍盔，鐵肩扛起大國擔當) People’s Liberation Army Daily (解放軍報) Oct. 29, 2018
Chinese Peacekeeping Forces Complete Withdrawal from Liberia, Concluding 13-Year Peacekeeping Mission (中國維和部隊全部撤出利比里亞 結束13年的維和行動) People’s Liberation Army Daily March 24, 2017
An Account of the Battle with Ebola by China’s 16th Peacekeeping Unit Deployed to Liberia (中國第16批赴利比里亞維和部隊抗擊埃博拉病毒記事) xinhuanet.com (新華網) Dec. 24, 2014
Military documentary - Inside the Barracks of China’s Peacekeeping Forces Stationed in Lebanon (軍事紀實·探營中國駐黎巴嫩維和部隊) cctv.com (央視網)
“Guardians of Peace - Stories of China’s Overseas Peacekeeping Forces” (守護和平的力量——中國軍隊海外維和故事) Xinhua News Agency (新華社) July 31, 2017
Homage to Our Heroes! United Nations Release Video to Show Gratitude to China’s Peacekeeping Forces”(致敬英雄！聯合國推視頻感謝中國維和部隊) China Daily (中國日報網) May 21, 2018
China is Most Proactive Among UN Nations in Providing Financial and Personnel Support to Peacekeeping Effort (聯合國維和部隊，中國出錢出人最積極) Datablog (數讀) June 2, 2016
Comparing the United States’ and China’s UN Peacekeeping Efforts and Investigating the Potential for Cooperation (中美聯合國維和行動比較與合作空間分析)
The Journal of International Studies (國際政治研究) 2017 Issue 4