Why China Is Suddenly Increasing Its Stake in the U.N.'s Troubled Humanitarian Forces

China U.N. peacekeeper troops
China's People's Liberation Army soldiers wear the sky-blue United Nations patch signifying membership in a Chinese peacekeeping unit destined for Darfur in South Sudan along with the Chinese flag on their uniforms, at their base in China's central Henan province on September 15, 2007. The 315-member engineering unit was to build bridges and roads, dig wells and perform other tasks. Peter Parks/AFP/Getty

Updated China used to disdain the U.N. For the three decades after it joined the Security Council in 1971, it mostly didn't even bother to vote on whether to approve peacekeeping missions, which it viewed as interference in the sovereign affairs of others. So when President Xi Jinping announced at the U.N. General Assembly session on September 28 that China would overhaul global peacekeeping with 8,000 extra troops and hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding, he was signaling a new Chinese attitude toward international intervention. Rather than just oppose it, China now wants to remake it.

Xi announced China would set up a 10-year, $1 billion fund for the U.N.'s work in peace and development, create a permanent, 8,000-strong Chinese peacekeeping quick-reaction force and give $100 million of military assistance to the African Union over five years so the union can create its own crisis intervention force. At a stroke, by adding those 8,000 troops to the 3,000 peacekeepers it already contributes, China would become the world's biggest provider of peacekeepers. (The U.S. remains peacekeeping's biggest funder but supplies just 82 soldiers.)

Xi added he expects China's bigger role to grant it greater influence over peacekeeping and all humanitarian intervention. No longer should the "big, strong and rich...bully the small, weak and poor," said Xi. "Those who adopt a high-handed approach of using force will find they are only lifting a rock to drop on their own feet."

Many fans of peacekeeping welcomed China's initiative. Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister who was instrumental in formulating and building acceptance for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the U.N. principle under which all humanitarian military interventions operatesays China's initiative was "wholly appropriate" to the multilateralism that peacekeeping is meant to embody.

Skeptics, however, noted that while China now stresses international consensus, it has recently been acting aggressively in its own neighborhood. It is currently involved in tense disputes over strategic islands in the South China Sea with Japan, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan, and is in something of a conventional arms race with the United States. A particular concern prompted by Xi's speech was his emphasis on Africa. The Chinese president said Beijing "firmly supports developing countries' greater representation and influence, especially African countries, in international governance."

To some, this sounded more like self-interest than altruism. As well as being the location for nine of the U.N.'s 16 peacekeeping missions, Africa is where China now has tens of billions of dollars invested in commodities and infrastructure. Keeping the peace in places where China has put its money raises the possibility that Chinese peacekeepers might see their role as protecting things as much as people.

Then again, maybe a little self-interest is exactly what U.N. peacekeeping requires. The history of peacekeeping is littered with failures in places where the famous blue-helmeted forces have no stake in the conflicts they are meant to be keeping a lid on. Take, for example, the world's biggest peacekeeping operation, the U.N. mission in Congo (MONUSCO). Its nadir, and the lowest point for all U.N. peacekeeping, came in November 2012 in Goma, Congo's main eastern city. Equipped with tanks, helicopters, planes, armored personnel carriers and an annual budget of $1.3 billion, a contingent of MONUSCO's 20,000 soldiers in the country was facing off against 1,000 rebels armed with Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and a few ancient tanks and artillery pieces.

When a rebel tank fired a single shell into Goma, the U.N. took decisive action. It fled. The peacekeepers abandoned the civilians they were mandated to protect and retreated to their bases or left the city altogether. The rebels, called the M23, took Goma without firing a further shot. By evening, crowds were gathering in front of U.N. bases, demanding that those peacekeepers who had not already left do so immediately. "You could not defend us," they shouted. "You are useless. You are dismissed."

Looking on in dismay was Alan Doss, head of MONUSCO from 2007 to 2010 and today executive director of the Kofi Annan Foundation in Geneva. "I just don't know if there was a rationale," he now says of that retreat. "I couldn't explain it." On the ground at the time, a Uruguayan U.N. officer told a Newsweek correspondent that the reason for the U.N.'s timidity was simple. "I have a wife and a son back home," he said. "My men have families too. I want us to get out there, but it's not safe. I have to make the right decision for everyone concerned."

The officer was expressing the grand flaw in peacekeeping's noble design: soldiers sent from one side of the world to the other to protect people they do not know and whose troubles do not interest them typically find themselves undermotivated. For Uruguayans in Congo, "everyone concerned" did not include the Congolese the peacekeepers were meant to protect.

The U.N.'s repeated peacekeeping failuresthis year the U.N. has been unable to prevent massacres in South Sudan and the Central African Republicprompted U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to request a sweeping review of the organization's peacekeeping missions, which is ongoing, and Obama to call his summit in New York. But whereas the U.N. and the U.S. initiatives were designed to drum up more resourcesand in that they have been successfulChina's is aimed at refashioning the whole practice of legal international military action.

Since 2005, humanitarian military intervention has been informed by R2P. Supporters of R2P argue that there are universal standards of human rights every government and international governmental body is required to uphold. R2P formalizes that by obligating the international community to override any country's sovereignty by intervening militarilyimposing a no-fly zone, perhaps, or a blockade, bombing campaign or even a ground invasionif that country is unable or unwilling to stop human rights violations on its territory.

Critics, including the Chinese government, say the universalism to which R2P aspires is a mirage. They point out there are no commonly accepted standards of human rights even within countries, citing differing attitudes about the death penalty in neighboring American states. Better, say the critics, to respect a diversity of opinion. "No civilization is superior to others," said Xi in New York at the U.N. "Each civilization represents the unique vision and contribution of its people."

And in practice, argues China, R2P has been used to impose the views of powerful nations on others. It was used as justification for interventions that include NATO's attack on the forces of Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya in 2011 and Russia's military actions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. In this context, if U.N. peacekeeping played a role in this version of R2P, until now it has mostly been a subservient, ex post facto one, mopping up after the primary intervention by a major power, or a bellicose neighbor, is over.

China appears to be trying to reverse that. In New York, Xi made clear that China's object was to ensure that poorer, less powerful countries, especially African ones, were no longer subject to the whims of others but, instead, could reassert authority over their own affairs. The vehicle China has chosen for this pushback is peacekeeping and, in particular, China's funding of a permanent African Union international intervention force.

A model for that force already exists in the form of AMISOM, an African peacekeeping body in Somalia that practices a brand of peacekeeping very different from the U.N.'s. It is also more efficient: Even though it has 22,000 soldiers, more than MONUSCO, AMISOM costs a fraction of a U.N. missionjust $95 million a year, less than a 10th of the annual MONUSCO price tag. And although it operates under a U.N. mandate, AMISOM's commanders,mainly Ugandans, but also Burundians, Ethiopians, Kenyans, Djiboutians, Sierra Leoneans and Ghanaians,interpret that authority much more aggressively. As the Ugandans in the Somali capital of Mogadishu candidly admit, they do not just try to keep the peace. Rather, they impose it by killing anyone making war, in particular fighters from the Al-Qaeda-allied Al-Shabab group.

AMISOM has been largely successful. Where the U.N. and the U.S. failed for two decades, AMISOM has killed thousands of Al-Shabab guerrillas and driven them out of Mogadishu. As a result, one of the world's most battered cities is experiencing an astonishing revival. Hundreds of millions of dollars have poured into real estate and other businesses, exports of livestock and fruit have soared, and the government predicts economic growth of 6 percent this year.

AMISOM's secret? Its readiness to bleed. Though it does not disclose casualties, the number of AMISOM soldiers killed in Somalia is estimated at 1,000 to 3,000. That level of casualties would be "totally unacceptable in a U.N. setting," says Doss. But since Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti have all been attacked by Al-Shabab, all of these countries are prepared to pay that price. The same self-interest helps explain why, since most peacekeeping missions are in Africa, that continent now provides half of all peacekeepers in the world (or 60 percent if you include AMISOM).

Skeptics will worry that China's sudden conversion to peacekeepingespecially if it's of the more aggressive AMISOM-style varietyis little more than an exercise in soft power in a region where it has rapidly become a major player. Humanitarians will likely be concerned about the possible erosion of peacekeeping's traditional neutrality. But returning the responsibility to protect Africa to Africans aligns with the mood of an Africa that is increasingly assertive and ever more tired of the U.N. After all, the new peacekeeping mission there can hardly do worse than the old one.

This article originally incorrectly stated that U.S. President Barack Obama held a meeting in New York at the same time as Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke to the United Nations General Assembly. That part of the article has been deleted. The article also stated that China had become the world's largest contributor of peacekeepers. That has been corrected to reflect that China's increased contribution to peacekeeping forces is proposed, not confirmed. The article also incorrectly stated that the Responsibility to Protect principle governs peacekeeping missions. That has been clarified to reflect the fact that the principle informs such missions. The article also implied that the U.N. forces in the city of Goma numbered 20,000. That has been clarified to reflect the fact that a contingent of those forces were present in the city rather than the full complement.