Over the past decade, China has deployed soldiers to African peacekeeping missions on several occasions. What details are available for the current deployment are congruent with previous deployments.
China has deployed forces to two missions in Sudan: one for the conflict with South Sudan and one for the crisis in Darfur. It has also committed troops to Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Most of China's previous commitments were negligible numerically and operationally. Chinese peacekeeping forces have never played a frontline role and their supportive activities can be conducted by smaller elements. In this sense, the offer of deploying over 500 soldiers to Mali is in keeping with other Chinese peacekeeping deployments.
Meeting a Mandate
China's interest in Africa should come as no surprise. The continent holds many natural resources that can fuel Chinese growth, and for Beijing, one of the more effective ways to retain a presence in the continent is through U.N. operations.
In fact, the only non-African countries to which China has ever contributed military forces are Cambodia and Lebanon. (The Cambodian mission is no longer active, and the Lebanese mission boasts only 300 soldiers.) Since 2001, 80 percent of all Chinese peacekeepers have been located in Africa. African U.N. missions, however, constitute no more than 50 percent of the total U.N. missions in that time period.
China has no direct economic or diplomatic interest in Mali, but Beijing is willing to undertake such an operation for ancillary reasons. Participating in peacekeeping missions curries favor with the United Nations and enables China to increase its activity in the region and to develop cooperative relationships with African countries. Moreover, Chinese participation ingratiates Beijing with the countries it helps to protect.
However, Chinese forces tend to be reserved for support functions, focusing specifically on engineering, logistics and staff functions. Indeed, because of the location of the U.N. mission in northern Mali, logistics, engineering and associated services will play an important role in facilitating other contingents to operate in the Malian desert. Thus, at least 155 of the 500 soldiers that China has committed to Mali are engineers.
The remaining soldiers will likely be used to protect the engineers. If approved, the Mali mission would be the first U.N. operation in which China participated that would entail the risk of suicide bombing and improvised explosive devices that could cause Chinese casualties. This risk corresponds with China's growing willingness to send troops overseas as it becomes more proactive militarily.
Notably, the offer has yet to be approved by the Chinese government or the United Nations. In any case, the peacekeeping mission will need to find more contributors to reach its mandated size of 12,000. So far, only the African countries that supported the French intervention in Mali have committed to the U.N. mission. Chad, for example, has said it would be willing to redeploy the troops it had withdrawn at the end of offensive operations in northern Mali once the U.N. mandate becomes active. But this will still leave the mission 6,000-7,000 soldiers shy of its desired amount.