China’s peacekeeping in Mali represents another example of the country’s increasing willingness to send personnel into an active conflict zone and a shift in Chinese strategic thinking.
One of the less-prominent changes in China’s security thinking over the past two decades has the been the country’s greater willingness to engage with, and take part in, United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKO) in parts of the world well beyond the Asia-Pacific region. As of March of this year, China had deployed 2513 peacekeepers to UN missions abroad, including to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Lebanon, South Sudan and Sudan. Over the two decades, Beijing has been more willing to send peacekeeping personnel into regions where combat remains ongoing, with one prominent example being the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). China’s peacekeeping contribution to UN operations in Mali represents not only another example of China’s developing willingness to send personnel into an active conflict zone, but also a departure from previous Chinese thinking regarding the choice of missions to engage in. It also reflects the developing acknowledgement from China that civil conflicts can have regional and international effects, especially as Africa becomes a critical part of Beijing’s expanded cross-regional trade interests.
China began to expand its interests in UNPKO engagement in the late 1990s. But the country’s participation in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) since 2013 marked the first time Chinese combat forces have been deployed as an integral part of a UN mission. In 2012, a small platoon of Chinese troops was sent to South Sudan, but its role was specifically to guard other Chinese personnel in the country. By contrast, the military detachment sent to Mali, originally numbering 170 troops, represented the first true combat forces to be integrated within a UN mission, given their considerably wider role in protecting both Chinese and non-Chinese personnel.
Until the Mali mission, China had demonstrated a preference for supplying non-military personnel — including civilian police, engineers and medical teams — to United Nations missions. Also, unlike in other parts of Africa where China has significant resource diplomacy interests, including DRC and Sudan/South Sudan, bilateral economic links between China and Mali remain comparatively modest at best, reported as totalling US$405 million in 2017. Nonetheless, Beijing’s ongoing commitment to MINUSMA has sought to demonstrate that China’s engagement with Africa has moved beyond the economic realm.
The Background: Mali’s Ongoing Security Challenges
Mali, along with many other neighbouring states in the Sahel region of northern Africa, was entangled in the aftershocks of the 2011 Libyan civil war. This resulted in the overthrow of longstanding leader Muammar Gaddafi, the fracturing of the country, and a swift re-igniting of hostilities which continues today. Mali’s fragile security structures buckled under the influx of both weapons and political extremism emanating from the Libyan conflict, resulting firstly in an aborted attempt by northern separatists to create a separate state of Azawad in 2012, and then regular attacks by armed fundamentalist organisations, including factions backed by Al-Qaedaand later the Islamic State (IS).
In March 2012, a military coup resulted in the removal of Malian President Amadou Toumani from office, and subsequent governments, including the current administration of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, continue to struggle to prevent the country from becoming a collapsed state. France, the former colonial power in Mali between the nineteenth century and independence in 1960, took the lead in launching Opération Serval in January 2013 to expel Islamic extremist forces from northern Mali, followed by Opération Barkhane in August 2014 which incorporated French counter-insurgency campaigns throughout the Sahel region, linking the Mali mission with those in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger, to the quintet of states also known as the ‘G5 Sahel’.
The United Nations Security Council agreed to create MINUSMA in April 2013 under the provisions of Chapter VI of the UN Charter and with the blessing of the Malian government. Since then, the operation has been referred to as the “world’s most dangerous UN mission”. The UN mandate in the country has been to help protect and stabilise the country in light of the eroded security situation, as well as to promote a durable democratic system in the country and to uphold the foundations of a shaky 2015 peace agreement. As of March 2019, there were slightly over 16,400 total UN personnel attached to the MINUSMA mission.
China decided in mid-2013 to supply peacekeeping personnel for the mission.The first detachment, which arrived in December of that year, was an advanced force of 135 personnel, including combat forces from the then-Shenyang Regional Military Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The sixth Chinese peacekeeping force was established in Mali in May 2018, with all of its 395 members being awarded the UN Peace Medals of Honour in March of this year. A seventh detachment is planned to arrive in Mali during the middle of this year. Beyond MINUSMA itself, Beijing has also been a strong advocate of international financial support for the post-2017 G5 Sahel joint force initiative, which was created by the five Sahel nations to share information and support on counter-terrorism and to promote regional stability.
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