In a rare move, China recently deployed its 16th Infantry combat troops to Mali's capital of Bamako to aid a UN peacekeeping mission. In the past, Beijing has contributed a number of engineering and support forces to UN peacekeeping forces across the African continent, but this month's move marks only the second time in recent history that the Asian state has contributed combat troops, signalling that Beijing may be willing to play an expanded and increasingly cooperative role in global peacekeeping efforts.
China has traditionally been a stalwart opponent of interventionist UN efforts, choosing, for example, to abstain from or veto votes regarding military intervention in Libya and Syria. Western Security Council nations have almost always spearheaded UN interventions, while China and its Security Council ally, Russia, have stood in opposition to such actions.
Some analysts have labelled the move in Mali as a remarkable shift for China, one indicative of the potential for an increasingly "Westernizing" foreign policy in Beijing. The move, however subtle, does suggest a potentially remarkable shift in China's geopolitical stance and partnerships. For example, during the peacekeeping efforts in Mali, Chinese infantry forces will stand side-by-side with German troops for the first time since World War II.
The Chinese infantry soldiers being deployed are said to be high-ranking, an "elite" force of Chinese fighters who are highly trained in combat endeavors. The current UN mission in Mali was requested by French leadership. France had previously intervened in Mali last year, to help protect against a rebellion by Tuareg forces in the north of the country that resulted in Islamist groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb taking root in the troubled African state.
Still, China has been careful in announcing their recent move, indicating that the country may be wary of being seen as a fully cooperative global player, and is still resistant to many aspects of the UN agenda.
"The Chinese security force is actually a guard team that will mainly be responsible for the security of the [UN mission] headquarters and the living areas of peacekeeping forces," said a defense ministry spokesman for China's state-run Xinhua news agency.
While such statements are ambiguous as to the possible combat nature of People's Liberation Army soldiers deployed in Mali (who may indeed have a significant job in store protecting existing peacekeeping soldiers and engineers), security analysts have already called out the remarkable shift. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn told Foreign Policy that troop movement is a "significant development and is in keeping with China's policy of slowing expanding the size and function of its support to peacekeeping."
In what some perceive as a competitive maneuver for African influence, China revved up its investment in Africa by a reported $2.4 billion this year. Many have been quick to pinpoint China's increasing economic and military presence in Africa in the past two years as a clear "influence race" with the United States (an idea that President Obama has been quick to dismiss, while still labelling the African continent one full of "promise and possibility"). In addition to shifting away from its traditionally defiant stance in the UN, China may be motivated by a desire protect Chinese investments, expand its influence in Africa, and increase global economic cooperation.
Policymakers would do well to pay close attention to this week's subtle shift in Chinese military presence in Mali, as recent maneuvers may indeed serve as an indicator of important new developments to come in the future of UN intervention efforts.